A workmance: Executive Directors and their Heads of Research or Policy

12 November 2013
SERIES Think tanks governance and management 19 items

On my way to a meeting of Latin American think tanks in Guatemala (to launch ILAIPP and learn about social inclusion) I picked up the airline’s magazine and found a very interesting article about the relationship between CEOs and their Creative Directors (of relevant companies). (If you are interested in the article, it is in November’s issue of the Avianca Magazine).

It got me thinking that for think tanks, a similar or equivalent relationship ought to be that between Executive Directors (EDs) and their heads of research or policy (or, at the very least, with the heads of specific research programmes or departments).

A quick Google search led to another unexpected finding. There are quite a few CEOs that are also the creative directors of their organisations. Interesting. In a way, this appears closer to what we see among many think tanks whose executive directors are also charged (or have assumed the role) with developing the ideas and arguments that the think tanks ‘sells’ or wants to popularise.

While I have stressed the importance of employing designers in a think tank before, I haven’t really thought about how this relates to the roles of Directors of Research and Policy. It seems to me that the heads of research or policy need to be more than just excellent academic or policy thinkers: they also have to be creative minds.

In any case, the question, for those think tanks with a head of research or policy, is still very relevant. What should this relationship look like?

  • Support: Without a doubt, EDs must support their heads of research or policy. They must provide them with all they need to develop, along with their research and policy teams, the ideas, projects and arguments that the think tank requires to be successful.
  • Close and personal: They have to enjoy a close relationship, characterised by trust and understanding. They ought to be able to “finish each other sentences”, work on their own and be away from each other for prolonged periods of time without losing track of what the other is thinking, and know that they are “watching each others’ backs”. This implies that the “creatives” in the think tank will know what can and cannot be done, how far they can push their EDs and their organisations, and when to challenge them to do things differently (this is relevant for the next point).
  • Share responsibilities: I do not know if this is true but I once heard that B&O was able to come up with incredibly original designs because it had separated the design and production function so that it would ask designers to come up with the design and then ask its engineers to “make it work”. I feel that, in a similar way, EDs have to “make it work” for their designers; their heads of research or policy (and even their individual researchers in smaller think tanks).  for instance, if a new idea demands a data set to be tested then the ED’s job is to get it: buying it, finding the funds to contract a surveying company, partner with another organisation with the capacity to develop the database, hiring new staff, etc. Whatever it takes.
  • Examined: The life unexamined is not worth living. Well, the relationship unexamined might be at the very least difficult to endure. This relationship, more than any, ought to be supported by ongoing yet unobtrusive monitoring. A mentor, a couple’s therapist, or, possibly more appropriately, a a board member ought to be involved in developing and maintaining the relationship.

So here are a set of questions for both to be asked and answered:

  1. For the Executive Directors: Do you have a Creative Director -or any one with an equivalent role- in your think tank? If you do, what is your relationship like?
  2. For Heads of Research or Policy (or equivalent “creatives”): What do you need from your Executive Director to achieve your full potential? Are you getting this?

Both sets of questions can help kick-start a conversation that I think may be quite interesting for both parties -and others.