Six lessons from think tank directors on preparing for leadership roles

5 August 2021

One of the interesting things we learned from a recent study with 45 think tank founders and directors from across Latin America, Asia and Africa, was that it’s common for think tank executive directors to come from former research or programme manager roles, with little preparation or training for a leadership position. As a think tank leader, they are then responsible for a whole new set of responsibilities, ranging from the big picture stuff like setting the organisation’s strategic direction to managing day-to-day operations. Despite the different regions, organisation sizes and types, many of the experiences and challenges faced by the directors we interviewed were similar. Here we want to share six lessons that future think tank leaders can learn from this experience.

1. Think tank leaders juggle many tasks at a time: you need a reliable team

Think tank directors explained in interviews that one of the hardest parts of the job was balancing multiple tasks at the same time – from working on the organisation’s strategic direction, ensuring research quality, securing financial resources and talking to the media, to overseeing daily operations.

Of course, they don’t do this alone, so directors need dependable teams that they can trust. When they do not have a reliable senior or management team to delegate to, they may burn out or neglect important issues. Future leaders should be aware that they are more likely to be successful if they are surrounded by a solid team they can rely on.

2. Leadership skills aren’t always learned on the way to the top: start building your skills now

For many leaders, another challenge they face when becoming directors was learning how to actually manage a think tank. They had mostly spent their careers as researchers or programme managers. But the best thinktankers, especially those who want to become leaders, combine research skills with other vital skills, such as communications, networking and financial and human resource management.

To make the transition to the director position smooth, future leaders should seek to gain these different skills along the way. One way to do this is by enrolling in leadership and capacity building programs (like the OTT School for Thinktankers, which offers thinktankers practical knowledge and access to networks in core think tank areas such as communications, financial management, fundraising and policy engagement). Another way is to seek mentorship from senior staff in your organisation, like directors or board members who can offer advice and support as you transition into a leadership position.

3. Securing funding will continue to be a perennial challenge: think about funding diversity and how to balance this with independence

Across contexts, one of the main challenges that directors face is securing funding –especially long-term, unrestricted funding. And this does not seem like it’s going to get better in the future as donors are moving away from core funding leaving think tanks increasingly dependent on short-term project funding.

It is important that future think tank directors seek to build a variety of funding sources, including short-term project grants or even the private sector. At the same time, directors need to ensure the credibility and independence of the products and services they offer and that their research agenda is not side-lined by taking on too many projects dictated by donor agendas.

4. Think tanks have to compete with other sectors: be creative in how you recruit and retain talented staff

Think tanks often struggle to recruit and retain qualified staff. This is especially common in the global South where think tanks compete for the best staff with international organisations and the private sector, which offer much higher salaries.

The directors in our study found many ways to retain the best staff. For example, hiring young graduates and mentoring them (the ‘grow your own’ strategy), offering incentives (such as funds to attend trainings or conferences), ensuring that the staff receives institutional support.

The success of a think tank depends on more than just having great researchers. To have an impact, research also needs to be effectively communicated to different audiences. Therefore, communicators and programme managers are also key in carrying the organisation forward, so it is important to consider them as integral team members alongside researchers and to have a strategy in place to train and maintain them.

5. Social barriers may affect career progression: help build diverse and inclusive think tanks

We heard from interviewees that thinktankers from underrepresented groups may encounter resistance and intense scrutiny of their work as they progress upwardly towards leadership positions. This can lead to frustration and limit their willingness to stay in leadership roles. In addition, many women leaders told us that they face challenges in balancing work and caring/home responsibilities.

Future leaders of any background should reflect on how these biases may affect their own career progression or that of their colleagues and work towards more diverse and inclusive think tanks. It is important to re-think who can be a great leader and work to empower them by creating an  organisational culture of inclusion and facilitates family friendly solutions for any employee who needs flexibility for caring duties.

6. Context matters, and think tanks need to constantly adapt to change

Changes in the context in which a think tank is working (globally and nationally) deeply affect the organisation’s work. Many think tanks are currently working in the context of growing polarisation, misinformation or a distrust in experts.

Equally, new technologies and the growth of new ways of doing research (e.g. big data, spatial analysis, data visualisations) means that think tanks need to ‘keep up’ and incorporate these trends into their work to remain relevant and credible. Think tank directors, therefore, need to be fully aware of these societal changes and adapt their teams, products and strategies.

Read the full OTT working paper Think Tank Leadership: Functions and Challenges of Executive Directors for more detailed findings as well as the main implications of these results and recommendations for think tank funders, boards and directors on how to improve the career progression of future think tank leaders.