Gala Díaz Langou is the Director of the Social Protection Program at the Centre for the Implementation of Public Policies promoting Equity and Growth (CIPPEC), in Argentina. She joined CIPPEC as a Research Assistant in 2006 and went through different institutional positions before becoming Programme Director in 2016. In this interview, she shares her experience through a long-term career path within a think tank.
Leandro Echt: When and how did you start working at CIPPEC?
Gala Díaz Langou: I started to work at CIPPEC in May 2006. I was contacted by the Department of Professional Development of the Di Tella University, where I was studying and working part-time on research projects and other services for students provided by the university. There was an opportunity to be part of a new team at CIPPEC, the Civil Society Influence Programme. I had not known CIPPEC before, but prepared myself for the interview and I really liked the opportunity. I was hired as a Research Assistant, which became my first full-time professional job.
LE: What attracted you to CIPPEC?
GDL: Two main features attracted me from the start. First, the mission of the organisation: improving public policies by using evidence produced from an independent and non-partisan space. Second, the quality of the professionals who were working at CIPPEC at that moment, which is something that is still distinctive of the organisation.
LE: You started as a Research Assistant in 2006 and today you are the Director of the Social Protection Programme. Can you describe your career path?
GDL: After two years in the Civil Society Influence Programme, first as a Research Assistant and then as an Analyst, I joined the new Social Protection Programme as an Analyst. I then became Project Coordinator, then Programme Coordinator, and in 2016 I became the Programme Director.
LE: Did you imagine this long career path in the organisation when you started in 2006?
GDL: Not really. I thought I would work at CIPPEC for a couple of years and then go study abroad. I tried to do that, but those were difficult years in the world. Although I was accepted at several universities, I could not get the financial support I needed. So I began studying for a Master’s degree in a university in Argentina. I then began to visualise how CIPPEC could contribute to my professional development and the opportunity of an actual career path within the organisation. It was a casual factor that put me in an advantageous situation: by studying in my country I began building professional contacts in the issues I wanted to study and work. This might not have been possible if I had studied abroad.
LE: Can you identify institutional factors that favoured your career-path within the organisation?
GDL: The two Directors I had in my programmes, first Vanesa Weyrauch at the Civil Society Influence Programme, and then Fabian Repetto at the Social Protection Programme, were a determining factor. They were both generous people and managers, they trusted me and opened the doors to a lot of opportunities and they delegated issues that were critical for my learning experience. Both of them enabled my professional development by giving me the chance to represent the organisation, establish contact with important stakeholders (both external and internal, like the Board), and participate in strategic decisions regarding the programmes. All this made me feel I was an important element of the daily work at CIPPEC.
LE: What were the main obstacles you faced in that career path?
GDL: I would say the major challenges were external: I had to prove myself as a high-quality professional before other stakeholders. It was a long-term effort to prove myself as a referent of my Programme and organisation towards people and institutions who are our partners today. A second challenge was related to income: you won’t earn tons of money while pursuing a career-path in a think tank. However, in the last few years I built a balanced financial scenario by doing some consultancy work. Institutional flexibility was important to enable me to do work externally. So I am able to complement my work at CIPPEC with external consultancies to have a better income.
LE: You built an important career path at CIPPEC. Is that common in the organisation?
GDL: There are no general rules. Career paths are heterogeneous and vary depending on the team, the people you work with and institutional timing. As a Director, I try to give my team opportunities to develop professionally. At the same time, however, there are no institutional policies nor clear incentives. In the last few years, CIPPEC created a Human Resources Department which provides incentives to improve the situation of junior staff, especially through financial support for graduate studies and professional specialisation. Unfortunately, many of the incentives I benefited from, like access to professional networks, attendance to key meetings and participation in strategic decisions, is still is not common for young members of staff.
LE: What are the benefits of an institutional policy that favours the development of members’ career paths?
GDL: The benefit is huge. An institution is not more than its members, regardless of its brand and reputation. If you do not have solid professionals, there is no institutional substance nor the possibility to be sustainable. At the same time, the damages of its absence are huge too. I have seen a lot of valuable professionals leave the organisation because they could not find the right opportunities, and that has a high cost for the institution: many people leave with valuable knowledge which is not documented for institutional knowledge. This situation is common in other think tanks too. Important losses can be avoided by having incentives like the ones I had when my career started. At institutional level, it is important to think strategically about retaining high-quality staff, especially in a labour market that offers better salaries.
The added value that a think tank like CIPPEC can offer is the access to knowledge and experience from key stakeholders, by participating in critical spaces in which public decisions are discussed and made. Career incentives are much more than salary. If you only consider salary, you will probably lose. A think tank needs to deploy valuable opportunities to its staff, especially young members. For instance, CIPPEC allows young researchers to publish their research in different formats.
LE: Why do you think it is hard for think tanks to create incentives for their members to develop successful long-term career paths?
GDL: I think there is a general feeling of urgency towards responsibilities like paying salaries or delivering projects’ products. The short-term prevails over the long-term. Investing in people is not only about money, it is, above all, about time. Working vertically is faster and easier than working horizontally, but it is the latter that actually builds personal and institutional capacity and generates incentives for people to stay. On the other hand, there is an intrinsic logic in the way think tanks articulate with the world of politics, where senior people might prefer building their own networks and capitalise opportunities for their own professional benefit, instead of sharing those opportunities with other colleagues or even their teams. Thus, collective achievements sometimes are presented as individual results.
LE: You started as Director of the Social Protection Programme in January 2016. What would you like to promote in your team?
GDL: I want to replicate the conditions that made me bet to stay at CIPPEC. I try to acknowledge that working in a think tank is part working as part of a team, and that should be materialised with a horizontal leadership approach and concrete opportunities, such as access to important decision-making spaces and relevant stakeholders. In particular, I try to empower my team by deciding internally where we want to go: anyone in the team can bring an idea to the table which can become a project with a real opportunity to generate impact in policy decisions.
LE: Where do you see yourself in a couple of years?
GDL: It has been a short time since starting as a Director. It is a privileged situation: we come up with an idea and in three months you are able to implement it with an institution that supports you with funds, communications and influence efforts. It is not easy to find a professional scenario like this, in terms of flexibility and freedom. While working at CIPPEC I have never been asked to do something which I did not agree with, nor has anybody ever wanted to influence my agenda. I have had lots of offers to work in the public sector, but I know that freedom is something that I would have to resign when you enter the world of politics. That freedom also gives you peace in terms of what is your contribution and what you are doing. That is a big reason which makes me see myself at CIPPEC in the midterm future.