Recruiting Senior Executives for the Federal Government

JDG Associates has been in business for 47 years and has worked on numerous assignments for the federal government. Darren DeGioia, president of the firm, recently sat down with Hunt Scanlon Media to discuss recruiting executive leaders across the sector. He also takes us inside his recent search for the nation’s 12th Architect of the U.S. Capitol. 

March 12, 2020 – Executive recruitment for the federal government is not exactly the same as finding talent for the corporate world.

One of the main differences, according to recruiters, is the application process and the time it takes to fill positions. Candidates must apply through the USAJOBS website, which can often be confusing and a challenge to navigate. What’s more, candidates must provide an extensive amount of information. In addition, candidates who apply for high level, executive positions within the federal government, known as the Senior Executive Service (SES), often need to complete an onerous writing requirement as part of the process. While some agencies recognize these requirements can be a deterrent to qualified candidates applying and have adapted their process, candidates must still submit Executive Core Qualification (ECQs) and Professional/Technical Qualification (PTQs) essays with their applications.

In addition to a candidate’s resume, requiring these narratives adds an additional 15 pages of writing.

Rockville, MD-based JDG Associates has been conducting SES searches for 18 years. Its team has extensive experience guiding candidates through the onerous USAJOBS application process, as well as providing advice on the drafting of the required ECQ and PTQ responses. As many candidates outside of the public sector are unfamiliar with the SES qualification process, knowing an experienced advisor to guide them in their application efforts acts as encouragement for them to apply. As a result, JDG Associates’ federal clients receive a broad slate of highly qualified, diverse candidates.

Led by president Darren DeGioia, JDG Associates has been providing executive recruitment services to Fortune 1000 corporations, associations and non-profits, federal, state and local governments, research and consulting firms and defense contractors since 1973. The firm’s research-intensive process and personal approach have resulted in more than 4,000 senior-level searches across a broad spectrum of industries and disciplines in the Washington, D.C. region and nationally.

Mr. DeGioia in particular has spent 16 years conducting senior-level search assignments for research and consulting organizations as well as the public sector. His areas of expertise include information technology, accounting and finance, the quantitative sciences, operations/ general management, marketing and communications.

Related: Recruiters Beware: Treat Candidates Better or Risk Steering Them Away as Future Employees and Customers

“While we have diversified our practice areas throughout the years, we have never lost sight of the fact that we are accountable for each search engagement,” said Mr. DeGioia. “We are performance-driven and never waver on our promise to build long-term, mutually rewarding partnerships. Although much has changed in the executive search industry, one thing remains constant: our mission to deliver the best candidates to our clients.”

Hunt Scanlon Media recently sat down with Mr. DeGioia for an exclusive Q&A on recruiting executive leaders for the federal government. He also discussed his recent search for the 12th Architect of the U.S. Capitol.


Darren DeGioia

Given your firm’s deep experience Darren, what are some of the key differences in finding executives for the federal government as opposed to other industries? Are placements more confidential? Are there specific characteristic/qualifications that a candidate requires?

Regarding confidentiality, since we augment the USAJOBS application process through additional, direct and targeted outreach, we always disclose the agency for which we are recruiting when contacting candidates. Similarly, when selections are made the agency will announce the successful candidate. However, a client’s application for a government position is always kept strictly confidential. As for specific characteristics or qualifications of candidates, the federal government places a premium on the amount of leadership a candidate must have if they are to be accepted as a member of the SES. The ECQs a candidate must write to be admitted to this high-ranking, selective group of government employees, requires documentation of the candidate’s experience in the following five core leadership competencies: leading change, leading people, results driven, business acumen and building coalitions. Note, the SES should not be confused with political appointees who are appointed by each presidential administration and whose term only lasts through that administration. Instead, the SES, deemed career civil servants, are in a permanent position which equates to a vice president level in private industry.

Any other traits?

When applying to the federal government, another specific trait that candidates must have is an appreciation for the federal bureaucracy. The federal government is unique in that the results of its efforts are often high-profile and far-reaching. However, it does not move with the same speed and nimbleness as the private sector. Thus, candidates from outside of the government must respect the processes involved in all aspects of federal management lest they become frustrated. This includes the time it takes to hire for positions. For candidates outside the government applying to an SES level position, the general timeframe for receiving an official offer is six months. This includes time to review candidates, conduct interviews, and complete the Office of Personnel Management’s ECQ certification process. For candidates seeking a general schedule position, the timeframe is typically three to four months.

JDG Associates emphasizes that over the past five years some 45 percent of the selected finalist candidates have been diverse with regards to your federal government search practice. How have you been so successful in promoting diversity within government positions? What efforts were taken? Is there still more that can be done?

JDG’s diverse consulting team has advanced the careers of women and ethnic minorities since 1973. As a result, our thorough database contains thousands of qualified women and minority candidates and sources of candidates. Moreover, we have cultivated relationships with diverse groups of associations and professional societies from which to source candidates. JDG is also a member of the Minority Business Roundtable, a national membership organization for executives of African-American, Hispanic-American, Asian-American, and Native-American-owned top-tier businesses, representing a variety of trades and industries. Lastly, we conduct original research to target diversity candidates. Diversity is a critical and highly sensitive topic for agencies to address and many have placed an emphasis on expanding their candidate pools to include more diverse candidates. There is always more that can be done to increase diversity, not only in the senior management ranks but in the senior professional staff as well.

Related: 4 Tips for Creating Candidate Experiences That Improve the Bottom Line

What does the pool of candidates look like for government searches? Are they typically already working in government positions? Has one industry been easier to transition from than others?

The pool of candidates will always differ based on the role that is to be filled. For example, when conducting a search for a federal chief information officer, we typically receive interest from a much broader number and range of candidates. However, when conducting a search for a much more niche-focused role, it may yield interest from a smaller pool of candidates because the community of people who have the expertise required to be successful in the role is much narrower. In fact, working on such a wide variety of fascinating roles is what makes conducting searches for the federal government so exciting.

What are some challenges you face?

When conducting searches for SES positions, the candidate pool depends on whether an agency requires a candidate with prior federal experience. It is not uncommon for an SES member in one agency to move into another SES role. However, some agencies request that the incoming executive bring wide-ranging private sector experience in order to infuse the agency with fresh perspectives and ideas. But therein is the challenge because those in the private sector are earning well more than what the federal government can pay. JDG has always been successful in recruiting candidates from the private sector by selling not only the mission of the organization but also the unique challenges of these roles. We have consistently found an individual’s motivation to serve a compelling mission will often outweigh salary concerns.

“As for specific characteristics or qualifications of candidates, the federal government places a premium on the amount of leadership a candidate must have if they are to be accepted as a member of the SES.”

Some 80 percent of your clients have worked on multiple searches with you and your 2019 Dun & Bradstreet Performance Evaluation yielded a score of 95 percent. What’s behind your success and continued partnership with so many clients?

Based on the number of searches we have successfully conducted and the variety and caliber of clients whom we support, we have built an outstanding record of exceeding our clients’ expectations. Regardless of whether we conduct a search for a federal client, corporate client or an association client, JDG has a very strong commitment to customer satisfaction and a deep concern for the interest of our clients and our candidates. JDG has been consistently rated extremely high for our reliability, integrity, timeliness of deliverables, quality, responsiveness, effective communication, and most importantly, the relationships we build and foster. We are honest, transparent and communicative. We never overpromise nor  under-deliver. Acting as a trusted advisor and key partner to our clients has served JDG very well for nearly 50 years.

Darren, take us inside your recent federal government search and the process that went into choosing the right individual as the nation’s 12th Architect of the U.S. Capitol?

In 2019, we completed the search for the nation’s 12th Architect of the U.S. Capitol. The Architect is responsible for the maintenance, operation, development, and preservation of the United States Capitol complex, which includes the Capitol, the House and Senate office buildings, the Library of Congress buildings, the Supreme Court, the U.S. Botanic Garden, the Capitol Power Plant, the Capitol Grounds and other facilities. In total, the Architect oversees approximately 18.5 million square feet of space across 570 acres of land covering 36 structures. The Capitol campus is home to 30,000 daily occupants and hosts more than 3 million visitors annually. This was an interesting search given the variety of competencies candidates needed to possess to succeed in the role.

Such as?

Namely, candidates needed strong leadership and management skills to oversee a staff of 2,200 employees and a budget of approximately $720 million, with significant experience in facilities management, preservation and construction management. There was also much debate over whether the successful candidate had to indeed be an architect as the title of the position implies. JDG worked closely with the U.S. Senate Committee on Rules and Administration which spearheaded the search, as well as the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on House Administration. In all, the search committee was comprised of numerous representatives from 12 different Capitol Hill offices. During a recruitment period of approximately six weeks, JDG identified and presented a strong pool of highly qualified candidates to the search committee members. After an extensive interview and vetting process which included numerous meetings with the search committee and members of Congress, four candidate names were sent to the White House for consideration in July of 2019. After further consideration and vetting by the White House, J. Brett Blanton, a professional engineer, was nominated by the president on Dec. 9, and confirmed by the full Senate on Dec. 19. The search culminated with Mr. Blanton being sworn into office and assuming the role on Jan. 16, a little over one year after the search commenced.

Related: Finding the Best Talent Starts with Engaging Candidates

Contributed by Scott A. Scanlon, Editor-in-Chief; Dale M. Zupsansky, Managing Editor; Stephen Sawicki, Managing Editor; and Erik Boender, Senior Research Editor – Hunt Scanlon Media

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