Director transitions: Unavoidable and necessary

11 December 2013
SERIES Think tanks governance and management 19 items

“I’ve been in this job for too long. I’ve run out of ideas.” This is the unfortunate confession of the director of a think tank I met in Serbia a few years ago. The organisation had been a player in its time but had lost its direction.

Most directors would not be brave enough to recognise this and too many of them cling to their jobs for too long. They claim that ‘it is not the right time to go’, that ‘this is a complex job and cannot be trusted on someone young’, or that ‘there is still work to be done’.

This is a difficult subject to address with directors. One has to be careful when asking how long they have been on the job, or whether they have a transition plan. It is, not surprisingly, a sensitive issue.

Funders are also rather concerned about transitions. They like to work with familiar faces and don’t tend to like it when new people take the lead. In a sector in which personal relationships matter a great deal, everyone seems to prefer to keep things as they are. This, as the case from Serbia illustrated so clearly, is  a mistake. Transitions are unavoidable and necessary.

So being such an important one let me offer some ideas, some food for thought:

Change is good –often it is necessaryFounding directors do not need the same skills as growth directors or consolidating directors or re-launching directions, etc. Founders are great at coming up with new and revolutionary ideas. After all, they imagined a think tank and got it off the ground. The funding they secured was from risk takers and the staff that they were able to motivate were driven by passion as much as anything else. During the start-up phase think tank directors need to be charismatic, natural-born leaders, entrepreneurial, and risk takers.

But when the think tank is up and running new skills are necessary. Processes need to be formalised and institutionalised. The think tank needs to ‘grow up’ in organisational terms and establish itself as a stable and sustainable proposition. Risk taking has to be measured and this necessarily changes the director’s focus: new funding is needed, new staffing structures have to be developed, new offices may need to be secured, etc.

And later on, changes in the think tank context and its own stage of development may demand new skills. It is unlikely that the same person (or people) will be able to stay on top of these changes and demands. New people will always be needed to deal with new opportunities and risks.

Change is better planned –even before change is expected: Over the years I have helped many think tanks replace key staff. Every time, I have been asked to look at newly prepared job descriptions and help to develop the recruitment process.

In my view, this is too late. Think tanks should always expect that they will ‘lose’ their best researchers and other key staff. It is a sign of success, if you ask me. They must therefore prepare themselves for orderly transitions. This means having:

  • An up to date job description;
  • A recruitment plan –randomly meeting people and ‘head-hunting’ them is not a plan;
  • An eye open for a few alternatives –especially for very key posts; and
  • A budget to deal with the replacement –including funds to cover any loss of income and having to hire someone temporarily.

The issue of replacing the Executive Director, of course, deserves especial attention. There needs to be a plan to do this and it has to be the responsibility of the board.

The board must own the process –the director works for the boardNot all think tanks have external boards (some are civic associations in which the researchers themselves are the members of the governing board and the director is chosen from among them; others are for profit companies with partners who may take turns as directors). But all can task the board or a sub-committee or an individual (usually the chairperson) with the management of executive transitions.

In practice, unfortunately, the responsibility for deciding when to leave and managing the transition process often falls on the executive directors themselves. This creates all sorts of problems. It is hard for someone who is busy running an organisation to decide that it is time to move on. This decision tends to be forced: the directors are either exhausted and decide to give up, they are poached by others unexpectedly and so leave in a hurry, or find themselves in a hole so deep they cannot find a way out –and then it is too late.

And when they are tasked with the transition all kinds of new problems arise. Who could honestly say that it would be easy to find a replacement –for him or her self? And to do it properly while running the organisation and thinking about the future at the same time. This is an impossible task.

While the board should be in charge, it is also important to involve the staff in the process and the decisions themselves. A member of the staff can be in the selection panel and a separate staff panel could be established to provide the main selection panel with a staff perspective.

It takes time -before, during and after: The transition plan needs to consider that the organisation will need time to get things ready before starting the search, that the search itself will take time -including the time that the newly appointed director will need to start the job, and that the new director will need time to settle into the post. All these stages need to be expected and supported appropriately.

Communication is critical -internally and externally: An orderly transition should not be a matter of concern to anyone. It is a natural occurrence for any organisation. A sudden and haphazard transition, on the other hand… Communicating the decision to change leadership and the process to the staff is a crucial first step. In my view this ought to be done by the board (for the formality) and by the director (as a personal gesture to the staff). But it has to be led by the board (or whoever has been charged with the transition process). The staff needs to know that their organisation is in good hands and that there is a clear path ahead. Uncertainly is the worse enemy of an executive transition.

External actors also need to be informed. Key long term donors and policy audiences ought to find out sooner rather than later. Again, they should feel reassured by the existence of a plan. Donors are more likely to worry about the organisation’s management during the transition; while policy audiences are more likely to be interested in possible changes to the organisation’s agenda.

In any case, it is important to consider involving the communications team (or the communicator) in the entire process -right from the start.

Again, communications need to be planned for the ‘before’ , the ‘during’ and the ‘after’.

To be involved or to not be involved -that is the question (and a cliché, sorry): There are cases of former directors who have remained involved in the organisations. For instance the founding directors of BCSP in Serbia maintain a very active role in the organisation -and it works. But others prefer to take a step back (and to the side). In many cases, in think tanks were the directors are chosen from among the researchers they cannot de-link themselves from the organisations but must find ways of getting out of the way.

There is no rule of thumb. It all depends on the personalities of the directors, of the wishes of the new director and the strength of the boards to ensure a certain degree of continuity. I am tempted to say that, given how I understand many directors feel and if they can keep themselves out of the way, some involvement may be useful. This could happen via one or more of the following:

  • Joining the boards;
  • Becoming senior research associates focusing on a key policy issue or running a specific project for the organisation;
  • Joining partner or strategic organisations while keeping an informal link to the think tank; and
  • Staying on as mentors to the new directors.

The safest option, however, is to take a step to the side and leave it to the new generation.

A new director need not be like the old director -look into the future: A final idea to consider is that when looking for a new director, boards should not try to find someone who is ‘just like the current director’. Let us assume that the current director is about 50 years old and has been on the job for 10 years. His or her CV will be quite impressive.  But was is that impressive 10 years ago? Probably not. The new directors should not be judged against the old directors as they are today but rather as they were in the past.

In other words, they need to be chosen for what they promise to deliver; not for what they have accomplished already.

In conclusion, better planned, better communicated, and better managed transitions can help propel a think tank into the future. They are necessary for any think tank.

For more on Director transitions visit the page for a mentoring project where we have explored some cases of transitions and other organisational development issues.