Resources for executive directors: competences, structure and tools

20 January 2014
SERIES Think tanks governance and management 19 items

Too many resources for think tanks are focused on communicationsinfluence, and monitoring and evaluation. But when you ask them, think tanks prefer to talk about more intimate things: management, human resources, quality control, basic finances (accounting, really), logistics, office space and office management, etc.

Executive directors often have few peers to talk to and there isn’t a literature that focuses on their jobs -as opposed to, say, executive directors in the private sector or in more mainstream NGOs.

As part of the mentoring project with ASIES and Grupo FARO we developed a short document that tries to bring together relevant literature and experience related to the executive direction of think tanks.

Tomás Garzón de la Roza is the main author of this document, who was supported by Vanesa Weyrauch and myself: Concepts on Management and Executive Direction.

The document (in Spanish) addresses three key areas: competences, structure, and tools for executive management.


A key competence for think tank’s executive directors is the capacity to empower their staff to deliver the organisation’s mission. This is easier said that done, after all, most think tank’s executive directors are senior researchers and not natural managers.

Another important competence relates to research management. This involves both managing the technical process (and structure) of a research project as well as managing the team, the people, involved.

Change management is another important competence for a successful executive director. While think tanks do not need to be always chaining, the incorporation of new technologies, new topics, or the focus on new sources of funding, among others, need to be effectively managed and, most importantly, led.

Human resources is critical, too: being able to plan ahead the progression of staff as well as to identify new people who the organisation needs. Successful executive directors avoid putting staff in positions that they are not ready for and seek to develop the skills they will need in the future.


The structure of a think tank, at least in relation to its research, can be characterised by two extreme models: Star Researchers and Research Teams.  I have come across both kinds of models and while one would expect there to be more think tanks with a bit of both, in fact, each model reflects a very different origin and history. More academic think tanks and those organised as associations (with members) tend to offer their senior researchers almost complete freedom. More managerial think tanks (more prone to invest in communications and influence) on the other hand tend to organise themselves around teams of researchers. In the latter, the organisation has the loudest voice; in the former it is the researchers.

Each, too, demands different competencies from the executive directors.

The structure of the executive direction (the senior management team, for example) also has to take into account the support that research teams need to carry out their work. Communications, programme/project management, finances and accounting, logistics and office management, etc. all must be reflected in the executive team’s structure. In other words, a senior management team that is entirely made up of researchers is incomplete.


The document does not provide a list of tools. Instead it focuses on one that is often forgotten by many think tanks: intranets.

Intranets can be done on the expensive or the cheap side. Investing too much money on them won’t guarantee success and its likely to end up costing a lot more. Many organisations have asked me about intranets. They tend to favour expensive branded options; or hiring a company to build one for them -just for them. The recommendation I give is to use open access technology (Google Drive, Dropbox, WordPress, etc.) and maybe pay more attention to the design of the way in which users access information and engage with each other.

At its very basic a simple intranet (a Google Drive or a Dropbox) can help reduce the time that managers spend pointing their staff in the direction of templates, guidelines, staff manuals, and other documents that should be accessible for all. A small improvement would allow everyone in the organisation to find everything the organisation is working on thus saving the time that researchers waste asking colleagues for ‘that database for the paper we worked on last year’ or finding the database in some old laptop.

And another thing

It is worth noting then that the executive director is not successful because he or she is brilliant. A successful executive director must have the right competences but also needs the right structure around him or her, and the right tools to manage the organisation.