Leadership transitions: lessons from three Latin American think tanks

9 February 2018
SERIES Think tank’s governance and management 18 items

Think tank’s executive directors need to deal with a huge diversity of issues: from budgetary decisions to communicational ones; from organisational engineering to staffing and leadership. Moreover, they are always interacting with a broad range of stakeholders, both at the external and internal fronts: donors, policymakers, political leaders, media, the private sector, other colleagues; and the Board and staff.

After some years holding such a demanding positions, it is likely (and sensible!) that the director will need a change. And this usually becomes a complex challenge for the organisation. The aforementioned tasks require a comprehensive set of skills and expertise, and it is usually hard to find a person who can master them all.

How can think tanks find the right person? What should their professional and personal profile look like? Which should be the role of the current Executive Director and the Board during the process?

In 2012 and 2013 I interviewed a group of former and current directors in Latin America who reflected on different issues related to their work and generously shared insights about the processes that led their organisations to appoint a new leader. I spoke with

In this article, I share lessons from their experiences.

1. Identifying the new leader

The transitions in the executive directors of Fedesarrollo (2012) and CIPPEC (2010) led to a similar outcome: both organisations selected a person who was already working there, holding different positions.

In the case of Fedesarrollo, this decision is part of a tradition (even though it is not “written in stone”):  the person who takes over the direction of the think tank is someone who is working or has worked at the institution. Usually, the new executive director does not come out of the blue. The appointed director, Leonardo Villar, not only had held key positions in the State, but also knew the organisation very well: he was a researcher and editor of the magazine “Coyuntura Económica”, one of the centre’s most recognised publications.

The transition at CIPPEC coincided with the organisation’s 10th anniversary. One particular characteristic of CIPPEC was that the organisation had, in this first period of its life, a two-directors scheme:  one general director (looking after financial and organisational sustainability) and one Executive Director (more involved in the daily management). Moreover, both outgoing directors were founders of CIPPEC. It was the first transition in the executive direction (of both, at the same time), so it was a huge challenge and hence the organisations’ sustainability was a real concern. The continuity of other senior staff members was also at stake.

When both directors decided to leave, an open call was launched and the selection process was led by a headhunting consultant. In the end, a staff member was chosen. Fernando Straface was the director of the Politics and Public Management Programme. Beyond having experience in multilateral organisations and the State, he was also a co-founder of CIPPEC.

In 2015, CIPPEC faced its second transition. Again, the person appointed to the position was already a staff member. Internal appointments have become a common practice for the think tank.

As in Fedesarrollo’s case, a personal connection with the history and practices of the institution were a key feature when choosing the new leader.

While Fedesarrollo and CIPPEC chose people already working at the organisation, FUSADES’ new executive director came from outside – sort of.

In 2012, FUSADES’ board started to search for a new executive director, who would have the challenge of replacing a director with more than 22 years in the institution and who was retiring. The new director had to be in place by the beginning of 2013, so time was pressing.

Attending to the strong polarisation in El Salvador, FUSADES’ board wanted someone with political experience. Eyes turned to Jose Angel Quiros, a co-founder of FUSADES, former director of FORTAS (a department within the institution) and former director of planning (second to the executive director). At that moment, though, he was serving as the executive director of the Millennium Challenge Corporation Fund of El Salvador (FOMILENIO), a huge development project aimed at promoting poverty reduction through sustainable growth. He had also performed as Deputy Minister of Finance and Minister of Public Works, Transportation and Housing and Urban Development.

Therefore, although he did not come from within the organisation, per se, he was highly identified with it because of his past experience. Moreover, as in CIPPEC’s experience, the new director was a co-founder of the organisation.


  • Professionals with working experience in the organisation have a plus.
  • Investing in internal leadership may offer a supply of highly-qualified candidates for future transitions.
  • Experience in politics and knowledge of the policy making process are important assets

2. Managing the transition process

While the former director of Fedesarrollo left his position, he did not leave the organisation. He continued working as an associate researcher. That decision gave the Board a valuable tool to face the transition process: time to identify the right person. The choice was not made until the board and the former director felt completely comfortable with the candidate. Roberto Steiner highlighted how staying in the organisation made the transition easier: the former director is in “the office next door” and available for whatever the new director needs.

At CIPPEC, the two outgoing directors helped the new one have a soft transition: the three of them held weekly or monthly meetings for five months. Moreover, both former directors remained linked to the organisation as members of the council of executive directors and presidents of the Advisory Board, which meets every six months and brings together former and current directors and presidents. At the same time, efforts were made to ensure that the board did not largely change its leadership.

The new director spent almost six months engaging personally with key stakeholders: donors, policy makers, etc. Additionally, he held frequent bilateral meetings with the fundraising, communications and administration teams, during which those teams advised him in many institutional features that were related to his new role. This kind of support was key in ensuring an effective transition. He made efforts to convince key senior staff to accompany the process, and invested time and energy into becoming a “leader among equals” (since he was a programme director like most of the senior staff members).

When FUSADES’s new director accepted the position, he held a meeting with all members of the board, who wished to express their most important strategic and operational concerns to the new leader. That helped the new director to focus on a work plan for each working area. The transition was underpinned by the presence of the outgoing director for one month. The relationship with the various department’s leaders, each of them “a king within his kingdom”, was a cause of concern for the new director. Efforts were invested in having introductory meetings with each department as well as a general induction to the work of each team.


  • Support by the outgoing director and the board is critical for a smooth transition.
  • Keep the outgoing leaders engaged with the organisation.
  • New directors need to gain the support of their former colleagues and the staff: give them a space and time to express their concerns and ideas.

3. Caring about the external image and sustainability

In the case of CIPPEC, an important decision was to guarantee that the two former directors’ involvement in partisan spaces (after they had left) did not jeopardize CIPPEC’s reputation as an independent think tank. While it is difficult to assert that it was effectively reached, the transition was made rather privately in order to avoid negative effects on CIPPEC’s image.

Moreover, former directors refrained from hiring CIPPEC’s staff for at least a year. This way, the organisation avoided losing any more staff.


The dilemmas, strategies and lessons share in this article intend to help others to reflect on their current transitional challenges.

In terms of the transitions, the time that the new directors stayed in their position suggest that the three processes were effective and have not affected the quality of the institutions’ work.

A final reflection should be considered in relation to internal transitions (as in the cases of Fedesarrollo and CIPPEC). While these types of transitions can be effective, some potential risks should be weighted in. If the new leaders always come from within, can they introduce new ideas and approaches? Are they in a good position to reach out to new markets?

Moreover, what motivates the internal selection? Is it because of fear of the unknown? A fear to expose the institution to important changes? Or is it based on the assumption that an internal transition process should be smoother?

Obviously, the experiences presented in this article are not the only ways of conducting leadership transitions. They ultimately depend on the organisations’ needs and the characteristics of the available candidates.

This article adapts two previous articles published by the author at Politics & Ideas.