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Interview With Bill Valdez, President of the Senior Executives Association
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By Trina Smith (P413)

In September 2018, Federal Executive Institute Alumni Association (FEIAA) President Peter Duklis signed an official MOU partnership agreement with Bill Valdez, president of the Senior Executives Association. We are thrilled to begin a partnership with the Senior Executives Association (SEA). We hope our partnership with SEA will give FEI alumni the opportunity to enjoy some of the great benefits we have to offer in 2019.   


We caught up with Bill Valdez this month for an interview. Mr. Valdez shared his vision for the Senior Executives Association and discussed the Civil Service Modernization Initiative, FEIAA, and SEA partnership benefits.  


Bill Valdez Bio

1. As the President of the Senior Executives Association, what is your vision for this group? What are your priorities

I have been involved with the Senior Executives Association since 2005, and a member since 1999. I became president in 2016. One of my highest priorities for the Senior Executives Association was to use it as a platform from which to bring the full resources of career of SES leaders to the forefront of our national requirements. 

In the past, SEA was a sleepy organization that basically did advocacy work on behalf of our members but didn’t really utilize the SES core to help solve some of our big national challenges. What I have been doing over the past two and half years since I have been the president is searching for ways to bring that career leadership to the forefront of national debates and thought leadership in a wide variety of areas—everything from Civil Service Modernization, to developing an initiative we are calling the Public Service Leadership as a Profession, looking at Cyber Security, Enterprise Risk Management, to Resiliency in the Government. 

Also, I want to bring the expertise of current career leaders as well as our retired SEA members to these national debates. Our partnership with FEIAA is part of that strategy; we cannot do this alone. We need to build coalitions and work with other groups that have a similar interest to amplify our voice and our message and restore the public service ethic in the United States. 

How could some of the FEIAA members get involved?

There are two different ways: First, join SEA—we give a discounted membership to members of FEIAA. We’ve created six what we call “communities of change,” which are forums for peer-to-peer networking and peer-to-peer thought leadership, and we work with the administration and Congress on several different initiatives.  


For example, in 2018 SEA held a series of Civil Service Modernization dialogues in partnership with the Hoover Institution and through our governance innovation community of change. We brought together government groups, such as the Partnership for Public Service, the Federalist Society, the Heritage Foundation, and the Hoover Institution, to discuss the art of the possible. 


If we really are going to try and build a modern civil service, how do we do it? As a result of these dialogues, we are going to be unveiling 10 Considerations for Civil Service Modernization that will form our legislative and administrative priorities for 2019. This was done with the full support and cooperation of our members, including FEIAA members. You don’t necessarily have to be a part of SEA to be involved, but it sure helps. 

2. Last month at the Presidential Rank Awards Leadership Summit, Bill Eggers gave a sobering presentation on “Imagining the Future of Federal Leadership, Workforce and Work.” What do you think will change about the Senior Executive Service over the next five years? 

I think the Federal Government is mired, as Bill Eggers said, in 19th/20th century business processes that stretch from acquisition to IT to hiring and retention. One of the things that we believe very strongly is that those processes and improvement to modernizing the civil service, in giving the tools and knowledge that are needed to manage the very complex Federal Government that we have today is only going to be achieved by Senior Career leaders, so we have to be the tip of the spear. I think the ECQs are going to have to change.  


The way we develop leaders, the way that they see their role for the future of the Federal Government needs attention. To give you one example, when the Civil Service Reform Act (CSRA) was passed in 1978, the term “Senior Executives” was used. There was this notion that we needed some type of super executive—that’s different than what a leader is. The notion of what it takes to be a leader in a complex organization has evolved greatly over the past 40 years, but OMB, OPM, and Congress have not kept up with that evolution in thinking, and in fact have hindered it. What we want to do is unstick the gears and give the career SESs the knowledge and tools they require to be the type of leaders that we think the Federal Government needs in the 21st century.

3. What skills do you believe are most important for a SES?

I believe it all fits into several big buckets. One is understanding how to manage an enterprise. If you go back to the CSRA, it wanted visionary leaders who are visionary executives, who have an enterprise-wide view of the Federal Government. The notion was that the SES would be a fungible resource between agencies and branches of government where you can bring the skill set of these senior leaders, no matter what their technical background was. That has fallen short, and we think it is very unfortunate that we’ve created a generation of leaders who are more valued for their technical skills than for their leadership skills. One solution is going back to the original view that we need visionary enterprise-level leaders. And that requires a set of skills that are found nowhere in the ECQs or other federal leadership courses. It is going to require a whole different view on how to manage and lead the federal system. 


Second is political skills. The SES was created to be the bridge between the political and career world, but nothing has been done to support career leaders to be co-equal to the political leadership and serve in that transition role. We are never going to change political leaders, but we can make the career leaders more politically savvy.  


Finally, negotiation skills. Being a Senior Executive is all about negotiation, all about political savvy. It’s all about being visionary enterprise leaders. If we don’t get these three skill sets firmly embedded in the SES, we are not going to produce the kind of leaders we need.

Where does mentoring fit in?

Mentoring is not valued in the Federal Government. In the private sector it is acknowledged to be one of the key components of being a leader. You cannot be a leader unless you mentor the next generation. That is not a requirement or an expectation in the Federal Government. It should start at the earliest part of your career. Everybody is a mentor to somebody. Teaching these type of skills is vital to preparing the next generation.


4. The leadership guru John Maxwell wrote the book Sometimes You Win, Sometimes You Learn. Basically, a setback can be turned into a step forward. Sometimes we learn most from the challenges we face and overcome or adapt to. Tell us about a time when things did not go as you planned or hoped, but from which you were able to learn some important lessons

Toward the end of my career, I was giving a briefing to senior political leadership and my senior political boss. About halfway through the meeting my boss left abruptly. While I was still briefing, the chief of staff showed me an e-mail that he had written to him: “This is the worst briefing I ever had, I am leaving.” I ended up closing the meeting, went back to my boss, and asked where I screwed up: I had not listened to what he really wanted. I assumed what he wanted, but I had not listened as closely as I should have. 


The lesson here is we all have been humbled in our lives both professionally and personally, but what distinguishes leaders is the ability to take a humbling situation and learn from it. Throughout my career I have come to learn from these humbling moments. 

5. We are excited about the upcoming webinar series FEIAA will jointly host with the Senior Executive Association. What can FEI Alumni expect from these webinars? 

SEA will be facilitating at least two webinars with FEIAA. The topics will cover how to write ECQs, the SES application process and experience (e.g., ECQs/interviews). I am presenting a webinar on January 24 titled “Career SES Will Save the World.” I believe career senior executives are the key to dealing with the nation’s seemingly daunting challenges. What is needed is a new paradigm of federal public service leadership development that produces career leaders equipped to meet 21st century challenges.

6. What is the title of the last leadership book you have read? Tell me how you related to one of the characters or principles.

There has been a generic model of leadership development that people tend to follow, such as the humble leader, servant leader, etc. But when you get down to the specific application to the Federal Government, these models fall way short. They are usually not great indicators of one key thing: what it is that makes a public-sector leader different from a private-sector leader.  


In 2019 we are launching what we are calling Public Leadership as a Profession, which is an attempt to define what it means to be a public service leader in the Federal Government. We are looking at the competencies assessment and certification, experiences, and all the other things needed to become a leader in the Federal Government. We believe very strongly at SEA that they are distinct and unique from the private sector, and therefore we are going to be driving some research into that area. One publication that comes close is a book from Jim Collins, Good to Great. He also wrote a monograph called Good to Great and the Social Sectors. I highly recommend both

Another book I would recommend is The Handbook of Federal Government Leadership and Administration: Transforming, Performing, and Innovating in a Complex World (ASPA Series in Public Administration and Public Policy) 1st Edition by, David H. Rosenbloom (Editor), Patrick S. Malone (Editor), and Bill Valdez (Editor). 

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