Veteran voice of senior executives speaks

Carol Bonosaro says the organization she represents values honorable public service

Carol Bonosaro is no neophyte. With almost two decades behind her at the helm of the Senior Executives Association (SEA), she has a firm grasp of the issues that worry the government’s top managers. Members of the Senior Executive Service, she said, are overworked, bombarded by difficult issues and obstacles and, lately, have become tethered to their BlackBerries.

One of the issues that senior executives are concerned about is an effort under way to institute a pay-for-performance system. According to a SEA survey, senior leaders have misgivings about such systems. Bonosaro does not see the sense in trying to measure the performance of leaders.

“How do you measure leadership?” she asked rhetorically. Metrics for attributes such as inspiration or creativity simply don’t exist, she said.

Bonosaro once was a senior federal executive. She ended her government career as director of the Congressional and Public Affairs Program at the Civil Rights Commission in 1986.

Many things have changed since then, she said. For example, getting a government job was more difficult than it is today. Prospective government hires would take the now-defunct Federal Service Entrance Examination. Only a third would pass. Groups of feds would then visit college campuses and whittle candidate pools by another third, giving agencies the best of the best. The remaining contenders could get job offers for ranks as high as GS-7.

“There was something appealing about that,” Bonosaro said. “When you got it, you thought it was something special.”

Tapping into that feeling of honor and respect gave candidates more encouragement to join the government, and it gave higher-ranking employees more reason to move into the federal government’s highest-ranking jobs, known as Senior Executive Service (SES) positions.

“We need to have a way to make government [service] feel like an honor again,” she said.

Senior executives today often work under unfunded mandates, watch helplessly as their budgets wither and deal with a revolving door of political appointees with wildly varying agendas. During a four-year presidential administration, Bonosaro said, the agenda of the political leaders can abruptly shift gears. Sometimes that puts SES members in the difficult position of having to work toward goals they don’t personally believe in.

Yet pride in making a difference in the lives of Americans is why many senior executives work in the government, she said. The corps is driven by the knowledge that what they do shapes the future of the nation in some way.

Bonosaro worries about the exodus of experienced executives as they reach retirement age and about the difficulty of replacing them. The government doesn’t have a formal knowledge transfer program that would make it easier for experienced hands to pass the lessons to their successors, she said.

Bonosaro is a power player because SEA gives federal executives a megaphone. Executives who work with her say she is uniquely able to wield the influence of the organization.

“She’s a key person who knows everybody in town,” said Shelby Hallmark, director of the Office of Workers Compensation Programs at the Labor Department. He is also on the board of directors for SEA.

Bonosaro works ably and willingly in conjunction with the Office of Personnel Management, Congress and other policy-makers for the benefit of senior executives, Hallmark said.

Pat Bradshaw, deputy undersecretary of Defense for civilian personnel policy, said one key to Bonosaro’s respect in the community is her ability to understand the specific needs and necessities of executives at different agencies.

“She does her homework,” Bradshaw said. “That’s why people listen when she speaks.”

The Carol Bonosaro fileCurrent position: President of the Senior Executives Association.

Career/education highlights: Bonosaro began her federal career at the Bureau of Budget — now the Office of Management and Budget — as a management intern and eventually became an executive at the Civil Rights Commission. She led the commission’s Congressional and Public Affairs Program from 1980 to 1986. She retired from the government in 1986 and almost immediately took the reins at SEA. She is a graduate of Cornell University and attended George Washington University for graduate study in economics and Harvard University’s Program for Senior Managers in Government.

Family: One daughter, a junior at the Corcoran College of Art and Design in Washington, D.C.

Hobbies: She is an avid New York Yankees fan and watches figure skating. She also travels to Europe once a year and enjoys reading classic English literature because it “takes one back to a simpler time of life.”

Biggest inspiration: Her parents, neither of whom was educated beyond elementary school. Together, she said, they gave her the drive to work hard and be self-sufficient. As a child, she also idolized Mickey Mantle, who inspired her to aim high, she said.

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