Creating team leaders – the Managing Think Tanks Series

27 May 2013
SERIES Think tanks governance and management 19 items

There cannot be good research organisation without a good team leader. This week’s final Managing Think Tanks chapter is all about team leaders, also known as center directors, department heads, division managers, etc. Their responsibilities, aside carrying out projects, include keeping staff productively employed, ensuring high report quality, promoting a good work environment and obtaining projects for the organisation.

The kind of attributes a team leader should ideally have include the following:

  • solid research and policy skills in order to direct staff and be a leader in the policy development process;
  • strong interpersonal and leadership skills essential in getting the most out of the team;
  • be good project managers. Know what volume of resources is needed to carry out a project and how to schedule and organize these resources effectively;
  • strong organisational skills to keep the team fully and productively employed;
  • be effective in marketing the team’s skills to existing clients; and
  • be innovative in assessing the needs of existing and new clients and identifying new policy issues and activities.

Think tanks have not really tackled the problem of ensuring that team leaders excel in the areas mentioned above. Team leaders are usually researchers who were effective and organised at their job, with an interest in marketing, and were thus promoted. Think tanks can improve their effectiveness and productivity by working with future team leaders and existing ones on tasks for which they will be responsible.

Selecting a team leader

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. The most important criteria is that the candidate must have substantive knowledge in the field in which they will be leader. Additionally, they must have proven skills in the relevant policy arena. Interpersonal skills are also quite important: without them, team productivity can significantly decrease and might even cause people to leave.

Supporting the team leader

Since most team leaders were previously researchers, they must learn to move away from research into more managerial tasks. This implies learning how to delegate responsibility.

Senior managers can alleviate the transition from researcher to team leader in several ways. First, they should define the job carefully, so that team leaders knows what is expected of them.  This can be done by providing a written job description and a list of tasks for the team leader, which should include specifications for how the tasks must be done. Second, senior management should be clear about what the expectations for the team are. They can also monitor performance, using tools such as time sheets to allocate the amount of time charged by the team and team leader, peer review of the team’s products, staff coverage projections, etc. Meetings with the team leader in order to discuss how he or she is using their staff and marketing the team’s and organisation’s services effectively are also useful.

When problems arise, such as bad team performance or unproductive behaviours from the team leader, senior managers should look at their own behaviour towards the team in order to ensure that they are not contributing to the problem, like for example micromanaging team leaders.

The bottom line is that senior management would do well to realize that team leaders are pivotal for the effectiveness of the entire think tank. Thus selection processes for team leaders must be carefully constructed in order to ensure that the appropriate people are chosen for the job. After the hiring, senior managers should mentor and coach the newly appointed leaders. These, in turn, must listen to their team members and be open to different opinions, make their jobs interesting, motivate their team and set goals for it.