“People with competence, freedom, and responsibility are the key to success”

5 February 2014
SERIES The CGD model for think tanks 6 items

This is the last of a series of short posts drawn from CGD’s essay: Building a Think-and-Do Tank: A Dozen Lessons from the First Dozen Years of the Center for Global Development. (Although I’d very much to comment on each one… one by one.)

I want to highlight two lessons about leadership and shared responsibility from the essay by Lawrence MacDonald and Todd Moss.

In lessons 4 and 5, the authors lay out excellent advice to think tanks exploring their own governance, management, and staffing arrangements. In my experience, often this is the main problem. Think tanks in developing countries are not always the best managed. They may have the best researchers and truly committed staff but not always the best managers. And without the best managers they are also unlikely to have the best governance and management arrangements; nor the best staffing policy.

Donors tend to stay away from this, or maybe discuss it with great care not to be seen as being too intrusive. They prepare to let the think tanks themselves decide ‘if’ and ‘how’ they need to reform. In the meantime they continue to support them and fund capacity development activities but, if I am honest, I think that these can have only a limited effect until the think tanks’ governance and management troubles are not addressed.

CGD presents an interesting model for think tanks. It works rather well for organisations that are built around senior (and rather independent) researchers with personal research agendas. It is light touch as it places a great deal of responsibility on individuals at all levels of the organisation and an excellent way of preparing the organisation to manage senior level transitions. It is also a model that can sustain a think tank’s size and avoid the temptation to grow.

4. Hire great people and give them plenty of freedom and responsibility

A think tank is people. Finding and recruiting the very best requires not only a compelling mission but also a work environment that is highly collegial and enjoyable—and that offers compensation that is competitive enough to attract top people. (This doesn’t necessarily mean paying top dollar; in fact, many people who come to CGD accept pay cuts because they see offsetting advantages.)

Within CGD, the process of identifying and attracting colleagues who are knowledgeable, creative, smart, and kind—preferably with a powerful drive for results and a healthy sense of humor—starts at the top and cascades throughout the organization. This applies to attracting not only well-established scholars, who bring their networks and reputations, but also younger researchers, who keep the energy level high and strive to become future stars.

Part of attracting and retaining great people is to offer them plenty of freedom and responsibility. CGD does not take institutional positions, and fellows are encouraged to follow their interests and reach their own conclusions—provided they can back these up with evidence and clear argumentation. While some senior staff members are hired because of specific expertise (such as trade or health), at least as often the president looks for welltrained, creative, passionate individuals. We are confident that given the proper incentives and environment, they will all shine.

Institutional experience matters, too. The president looks for senior fellows who are topnotch scholars and who have worked in large, complex organizations and thus know firsthand how the policy process works. Many senior staff members, including both of us, previously worked at the World Bank; others have held senior positions in the International Monetary Fund, Inter-American Development Bank, US and UK treasuries, US State Department, World Trade Organization, the United Nations, and large nongovernmental organizations, such as the ONE Campaign. Similarly, CGD employees have left us for senior positions in the White House, US Agency for International Development, the Millennium Challenge Corporation, the Hewlett and Gates foundations, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, World Resources Institute, and the Council on Foreign Relations. We actively seek institutional diversity as part of our recruitment efforts. We also have lively debates about whether former World Bankers are over-represented among our staff members.

Stellar junior staff members are essential to our success. More than half of our employees are recent graduates (bachelor’s or master’s degrees) in their first job or with just a few years of work experience. They typically work for CGD for just two to three years and then move on to graduate school or to jobs in government and other development organizations. The steady turnover of youthful employees ensures a constant influx of new ideas and energy, helping to keep the rest of us on our toes. This approach has also created a network of CGD alumni; we cultivate these up-and-coming development professionals through social media and face-to-face events.

Our staffing model also includes a variety of arrangements designed to ensure a continual flow of fresh ideas and to extend our influence without necessarily expanding our payroll or having additional people on-site. Nonresident fellows are tenured faculty at top universities working on issues of interest to CGD; the affiliation offers them use of our communications platform (such as publication of working papers and blogging) and a window into the Washington policy world. Visiting fellows are typically policymakers who step back from their daily responsibilities and use a stint at the Center to learn, reflect, and write. Some “visit” by having an office at CGD; others come by only occasionally. Each year we host a postdoctoral fellow, who usually goes on to teach in one of the world’s best academic 6 departments, bitten by the bug of policy-relevant work and forever part of the CGD network.


5. Share leadership

We have been told that our president’s ability to participate in a shared leadership model is both unusual and highly valuable. The CGD leadership team extends well beyond the president and the two of us.

The core, which is called somewhat grandly (and ironically; see #7) the Strategy and Planning Group (SPG), meets every other week and comprises the three of us, the chief financial officer, the research manager (who is also a senior fellow), the director for Europe (who usually joins via video connection), and one or two other senior researchers who typically serve on SPG for a year or two. Any SPG member may submit agenda items. Discussions are typically lively, short, and often filled with laughter. Opinions are offered, and typically a consensus is reached rather quickly. In the event that consensus is lacking, the president decides how we should proceed.

Examples of issues brought to the SPG include decisions on resource allocation, funding opportunities, approval of new policy initiatives, recruitment, and affiliations (for visiting and nonresident fellows, for example). Major decisions, such as when to seek board approval to buy new offices, obviously come to the SPG, as do some seemingly minor questions that might otherwise fall between the stools, such as assigning responsibility for bringing order to internal mailing lists.

But leadership goes well beyond the SPG. Many senior staff members assume institutional responsibilities, such as recruitment, screening the many visitor requests, or hosting VIPs. Senior staff lunches, which are held every other week, provide a venue for updates on new and ongoing projects, successes and failures in efforts to affect change, and, most important, informal discussions of what the Center should do and how we should do it. Housekeeping announcements, budget discussions, and other bureaucratic ephemera are handled by email or in smaller meetings.