Creating an environment conducive for success: a think tank is only as good as it is managed and governed

27 June 2016
SERIES Think tank’s governance and management 18 items

At On Think Tanks we publish articles on a wide range of themes that are of concern to think tanks and policy research centres. This is, after all, the nature of our work. We also have an outstanding pool of collaborators who contribute to the expanse of our thematic, adding views and sharing experiences from different parts of the world.

There are some topics on this platform which have over a hundred articles and resources to feed the discussion or illustrate the scene to the new reader. One of these is think tanks’ governance and management. This theme encompasses governing bodies, boards, senior management and line management, fundraising and the allocation of  funds, communications, human resources, finance experts, etc. Funneling the topic would not streamline the discussion: one of the main arguments is that governance and management for think tanks have to include all of these areas. The complexity of these organisations demands this, and, to create an environment conducive for success, the roles for each of these areas should be carefully crafted.

A think tank’s set-up can mark the difference between success and failure. A proliferation of outputs and success in influencing policy is only temporary if the internal structure of an organisation is not strong. As Enrique Mendizabal points out:

[Think tanks] need a strong, competent and committed board to steer them through choppy waters. A weak board will miss the tide, it will not be able to support its director (it may not even be able to appoint the most appropriate director), won’t be able to invest in long term initiatives or in new skills for future challenges (…)  A well-funded and very visible organisation with a weak board and senior management may be gone from one day to the other.

What exactly do “governance” and “management” entail? This is a broad topic, and providing a succinct and precise definition is a difficult task, but Enrique does offer his point of view:  

Governance I defined as the organisational arrangement –the way the various parts of the organisation are brought together and the rules of their interactions. Management, I said, had more to do with the practical aspects of the organisation’s functioning: project and team management, staffing, line management, etc.

In general, establishing a governing board from an organisation’s start  is good practice. This board, however, can come in different shapes and forms. Small think tanks with limited funding need the support of external (and voluntary) experts, while those with a larger permanent staff body and a bigger budget can afford multiple boards to meet their organisational needs.

Defining the think tank label is an ongoing topic of discussion, and this is reflected on how they are governed. The lack of clear and definite parameters on the definition means that there is quite a bit of leeway on what a think tank’s governance system is or should look like. There are, however, things to keep in mind when setting up governance structures. On “What Keeps Think Tank Directors up at night: Reflections on funding, staffing, governance, communications and M&E” Enrique shares some thoughts:

Whatever the governance structure a few things could be considered as good practice:
1. Make sure the board is locally relevant
2. Make sure the board has the right mix of skills
3. Do not make it too board heavy
4. Think about what is right for a think tank
5. Quality control
6. Staff management
7. Leadership

In “Think Tank Boards: Composition and Practices,” Enrique and Andrea Moncada take an in-depth look at different kind of think tanks and their board structures.

Orazio Belletini, in Strengthening Grupo Faro’s Board of Directors, shares Grupo FARO’s experience restructuring its statute in 2012 and establishing a Board of Directors identified as its highest governing body and tasked with leading the organisation’s most important processes.

In 2013 Andrea Moncada did a mini series on Ray Struyk’s book “Managing Think Tanks”, where she provided summaries of each chapter in the book. All entries are definitely worth reading, but there are a few that are most relevant to this series. On the subject of boards and their composition, she quotes Ray Struyk:

Each candidate for board membership should be an experienced professional with a strong reputation for integrity, creativity, and thoughtfulness. Beyond this, at least some members should have substantial experience in public policy development, social science research and evaluation, and corporate finance. It is also important to include someone with a background in working with the media or other form of communications.

Andrea also summarises Struyk’s chapter on management, highlighting the importance of senior managers to make time to address basic administration and financial management tasks. The chapter on Creating Team Leaders is especially relevant to this series:

The process of selecting a team leader is the first step in ensuring organisational success. Senior management is in charge of this, and they should judge prospective team leaders against a set of rigorous criteria.

It is the boards who ultimately “own” the organisation, and it is them who are usually held accountable for legal issues and top management decisions. However, at the head of a think tank’s day to day operations are their executive directors. This might be one of the hardest roles to fill. Just as think tanks are complex organisations, it can only be expected that the role of their leaders be equally, if not more, complex.

Enrique interviewed Simon Maxwell, former director of the Overseas Development Institute. In the second part of the two part interview, Simon says:

I always say that think-tank Directors are doomed to fail, because the job description is so wide. How can you be the world’s best researcher, best communicator, best fund-raiser, best leader of change, and best manager, all at once? Of course, you can’t.

Furthermore, Enrique reflects on an article by colleague Leandro Echt:

Leandro Echt correctly identifies the challenges that think tanks directors face:
“They must: make key decisions that involve a huge diversity of issues: from budgetary choices, to communicational ones; from organizational engineering to staff issues. Moreover, they have to deal with a broad range of stakeholders, both at the internal and external “fronts”: donors, policy makers, media, private sector, other colleagues; and the Board and staff.”

According to Leandro’s research, there are certain traits that are indispensable for a leader of a research organisation:

  • Knowledge of the national policy making process is important
  • Experience in volunteering seems to be useful when it comes to mobilising others
  • Humility to make others shine
  • Excellent communication skills”

There are also guidelines that can be useful when selecting a leader. Focusing on the human aspect of leadership, Enrique refers to the capacity of executive directors to empower their staff to deliver the organisation’s mission. It is not about micro-management, but rather about equipping a team with the tools they need to deliver. The success of an executive director lies in his or her skill set and the structures that surround them. No man is an island, so they say, and think tank executive directors are no exception. Surrounded by capable team leaders and managers, they are able to provide adequate guidance to their organisations. In his first post on think tanks’ governance and management challenges, Enrique writes:

Supporting the EDs is the Senior Management Team. These are different in every organisation but play a similar role. They are the first management/leadership layer below the ED and can define the overall structure of the organisation.

As important as it is to identify (and breed) good leaders, it is also important to know when to promote change. Raquel Zelaya shares the experience of ASIES in Guatemala. ASIES accepted that their governance structure needed a change and embraced it, capitalising on the experience of research fellows to strengthen the academic skills of junior researchers and eventually grant them full research management functions.

Change should be embraced as an opportunity to move forward. What is necessary to set up a think tank is not always what is necessary to sustain it, and it is a trait of great leadership to understand when it is time to hand over the reins to those with new energy to steer the organisation in the right direction. Director transitions are unavoidable and necessary.

For more accounts on the roles of Executive Directors see On Think Tanks’ series on Latin America and African think tank leaders.

Good governance and management does not end with effective leadership. There has to be a solid communications practice within the organisation, both internally and externally, and think tanks have to be prepared to employ professionals in the field. This is another challenge for think tanks in terms of governance and management:

In practice, the roles of heads of communication, management, and finance are held by senior researchers who may at some point shown an interest in these issues or were simply unlucky in the way that roles were allocated.

This has to be reevaluated if an organisation wants to have a strong governing structure that can ensure its success in the long(er) run. Organisations today are places of collaboration, where hierarchical models are no longer in the trend. “Support” roles, or whatever you want to call them, have to be given the same importance as “production” roles (or whatever you want to call them) and must be included in governance structures. Tasking researchers with communications and finance management not only belittles the importance of these roles, but also takes away time from those researchers to do their actual jobs.

On a different note, in his article “The Next Capacity Development ‘Thing’: Management for Researchers”, Enrique writes about his views and experience with performance reviews in relation to management responsibilities.  

Finally, for me, the main problem of the performance review process was that it replaced serious investments in good management. In a context in which researchers had little time as it was (they were doing research, attempting to influence policy and fundraising) managing teams was not a priority -and managing the youngest in their teams was even less so.

At the end of the day, the most valuable asset for think tanks is their people, and their professional well-being and development is directly affected by good (or poor) governance and management. As Enrique rightly states:

(…) think tanks need to remember that everything they do is about people and their ideas. The organisation’s governance and management needs to reflect this. Even more than policy influence as a guiding objective; the nurturing and unleashing of its staff full potential should be at the heart of everything it does.

Organisations have a responsibility of care for their staff. Allowing a researcher without the skills or the interest to manage others to take on young researchers is, in my view (and with my union hat on) an irresponsibility.