Director’s profiles and how to replace them

9 September 2013
SERIES Think tanks governance and management 19 items

Leandro Echt has published an interesting synthesis of think tank directors‘ background, profiles and qualities via Politics and Ideas. I reproduce some key points here but encourage you to read the full article: Think Tank Directors.

The best director

Leandro 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.

As I have written several times before in this blog, the business of think tanks is not only complicated in nature but made even harder by challenges that these organisations face. When looking at the contextual factors that affect think tanks I found that tax, labour and education policy, for instance, can have particular effects on think tanks that do not affect other organisations subject to the same rules.

In ‘what keeps think tank directors up at night‘ I explored a number of challenges that they face:

  • Funding: Think tank directors need to be competent financial planners and capable of developing business or fundraising for the organisation.
  • Staffing: Directors need to have an overall vision of think tanks’ most important asses: its staff. They must be able to mobilise people as much as cash.
  • The research agenda: While they may never be experts in any of the areas of study of their think tanks, directors must be competent researchers and have a strong understanding of the nature of research. They must, also, be able to help the organisation develop a coherent research agenda. This may sound easy for a researcher-Director but it is hardly the case. This is because they often confuse academic research agendas with policy research agendas. They are both important but are not the same.
  • Governance and management: Directors need to excellent managers. It is not enough to be a senior researcher in the organisation.
  • Use of new technologies and practices: Nick Scott argues that think tanks should not be early adopters of technology but this still demands a basic level of technological literacy.
  • Monitoring and evaluation: A culture of learning would be expected in a think tank. But it is strange to find think tanks that dedicate any time to learn and adapt their work. Directors must take the lead when it comes to learning. Bottom-up learning sounds like evaluation for the sake of accountability only.
  • Organisational culture -and becoming a think tank: Directors ought to be think tank scholars. There is nothing like a Director who think about what it is that they do.

As a consequence, think tank directors need skills that are difficult to find in a single person. Leandro asks:

What is the right balance between academic or research knowledge and management capacities?

Across all the interviews that he reviewed, Leandro found some of the following qualities necessary in a candidate:

  • 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

I think it would be worth revising the virtues developed by Alain de Bottom as a source of inspiration for directors.

Transition: finding the right director

He followed this post with one on how to manage the transition of executive directors. This post outlines the experiences of Fedesarrollo in Colombia and CIPPEC in Argentina.  Both hired internally but followed different processes.

FEDESARROLLO’s and CIPPEC’s experiences show the value of investing in internal leadership, in order to guarantee a supply of highly-qualified candidates for future transitions. Both organizations chose people who were already part of the institution. Moreover, in every case former directors remained linked to the institution.

Lessons and recommendations

Director transitions are difficult and as a consequence, lessons from successful and failed experiences are in high demand. Here are some ideas that I put together to support two transitions in Latin America:

  • Headhunting and HR companies can be helpful to organise the process but they are unlikely to be instrumental in the identification of candidates. While networks ought to be used to find the best candidates, think tanks should also go well beyond their usual communities and search for candidates in other sectors and, even, countries.
  • The Board and its Chair are critical to the process. They must own it entirely and lead from beginning to end -including accompanying the newly appointed director. If possible a member of the board (if not the Chair) should mentor the director for at least a year.
  • The staff should be involved. This could be by joining the interview panel or participating in a second panel to interview shortlisted candidates. It is the staff that, after all, will work with the director day in and day out.
  • Candidates should be given the chance to get to know the organisation before they get to sit their final interviews. This may involve disclosing lots of confidential information. With this knowledge the candidates will be better prepared to develop and pitch their vision of the organisation.
  • Think tanks should expect a long process. Not only to find the right candidate but also to prepare the organisation and its partners and audiences, as well as to help them find their own feet.
  • It is important that new directors do not take too long to make their first decisions. Having a plan (properly informed) before the director joins the organisation (or takes up the post) should be a condition of appointment.
  • Old directors should keep their distance but can, and should, introduce new directors to the staff, to the think tank’s partners and main audiences, and to its funders. This is particularly important for think tanks founded by the directors that are leaving.

Do you have any experiences related to think tank director hiring? If you do, please share them.