Top ECQ and SES Mistakes to Avoid

Executive Core Qualifications are an integral part of the Senior Executive Service application. Be sure to avoid these mistakes in crafting your resume.

Government jobs are often the most desirable jobs during periods of economic uncertainty. Typically, a government job provides unparalleled levels of safety and security when compared to traditional jobs in the public sector. Health care benefits are traditionally very generous, as are the allowances for time off, pension participation, and discounted rates for mortgages and loans.

For the active SES job seeker, negotiating the challenging application process and overcoming potential obstacles may seem daunting. Avoiding costly mistakes when it comes to writing your ECQ responses and SES resume is absolutely crucial to securing an SES position. 

What is an ECQ and SES?

Executive Core Qualifications (ECQs) are a specifically designated set of five core competencies that hiring managers use to assess candidates. They include:

  • Leading Change
  • Leading People
  • Results Driven
  • Business Acumen
  • Building Coalitions

During the evaluation process, the ECQs are heavily weighted, and considered an integral part of the Senior Executive Service (SES) application. The SES application is the standard employment form for job seekers looking for an advanced level position in the government, one level below Presidential appointed positions.

A properly articulated SES resume will demonstrate a candidate’s ability to integrate within a Federal government culture, and highlight their ability to delegate authority, adapt to change, innovate, and negotiate. The goal is highlighting personal achievements and success, but doing so in a matter-of-fact manner that exemplifies the “human element” of the candidate. It requires a very delicate touch to maintain the appropriate tone and balance, but it is integral to getting the hiring manager’s attention.

What are the Common Mistakes Which Can Derail a Candidacy?

The average executive federal SES application is approximately five pages. They incorporate the CCAR (Challenge/Context/Action/Resolution) format which shows how a candidate was able to address a particular situation, and what the end result was. The SES is a standard form and can be used for multiple federal SES job submissions. Here are some easy mistakes to avoid.

Failure to Highlight Real Life Examples

The SES resume is not a “bragging sheet.” Everything posted needs to be methodical and well thought out, clearly delineating real life examples of how you put the specific skills listed under the ECQ into play.

Regarding the category of “Leading People,” a candidate cannot simply put they were a “team leader.” Clearly demonstrating the position of leadership by showing how you were able to affect change in a situation, and get those who reported to you to go along with that change is integral to a successful application. Interpersonal skills that display the ability to lead a corporate culture is what the hiring manager is evaluating. 

Failure to Demonstrate Flexibility

Under the ECQ category of “Leading Change,” the hiring manager wants to see how flexible a candidate is. Are they resistant to change? Do they take the “my way or the highway” approach to leadership?

Government policies are ever evolving; a true leader can adapt to change, and most important, get the staff that reports to them on board with that change immediately.

Failure to Demonstrate Vision

Can a candidate come in and look at a situation and come up with an entirely different solution to a set of problems? An inability to show a vision or how that candidate failed to achieve a vision can easily take them out of the running.

Can they take that vison, and in turn, inspire colleagues to work together to that goal? This is essential to fitting in the corporate culture and being an effective leader.

Failure to Follow the ECQ Format

The Challenge-Context-Action-Result (CCAR) model is standard and must be adhered to in order to remain in contention. 

  • “Challenge”: Describe a problem the applicant encountered? 
  • “Context”: How was the problem approached and analyzed? 
  • “Action”: What were the action steps taken?
  • “Result”: What were the positive outcomes from the steps taken?

Failure to follow these prompts, leaving vague descriptions, or unsubstantiated claims will put the candidate in a poor light. Clearly written paragraphs with bullet points are required; diplomas, awards, and other superfluous details are unnecessary.

Failure to Clearly Organize Your Thoughts

Failure to properly organize your achievements and form a coherent narrative sinks even the most qualified candidates. The five ECQs need to have been clearly demonstrated, and are an ideal reflection on who you would be in a corporate culture. The narrative flow must show who you are as a person; not a listing of achievements. 

The five ECQs are comprised of dozens of core competencies which are being evaluated. This gives you ample opportunity to provide a clear understanding of what you bring to the position- strategic thinking, a vision, and ability to adapt and change. Have you built teams, and can you do it again? Can you form alliances and network both internally and externally? Lastly, are you a fair leader, but firm enough to release people who aren’t performing?

All of this becomes fodder for the hiring manager’s analysis of your skills and your ability to both lead and become a team player. Failure to provide a detailed narrative that shines a light on these skills is what prevents a candidate from moving forward in consideration. Because of the specific nature of the SES format, all of these mistakes can easily be rectified by the candidate.

Follow the Plan to Achieve Success

While the process may seem daunting, much of it remains in the candidate’s hands to prevent the common errors that can derail applicants. By giving the hiring manager a clean, succinct narrative that shows the human side of your achievements, they can feel comfortable moving forward with the process. 

Following the structure, and tailoring your SES to a specific job, rather than a scattershot approach using one SES for all jobs is the best way to get the hiring manager’s attention.

The effort and attention to detail can be rewarded with a stable career and excellent benefits.

About the Author

Jason Kay is a professional resume writer and regular contributor to, a professional federal resume service and repository of sample KSA statements.