Six months in a management position: notes from the field

20 September 2017

This past February, six years after the founding of the European Policy Institute and four years since I joined as full-time research coordinator, the members of the Assembly officially appointed me as Director. I began writing this post six months later, on a plane over Ljubljana heading to the Civil Society Forum in Trieste. I took a second shot at completing it on a plane headed to Berlin two months later.

I have been lucky to have the support of the OTT team, specifically Vanesa Weyrauch, as a mentor. Vanesa has guided me through my personal and organisational adjustment in the new position. As a Fellow of the OTT Fellowship Programme, I have had time each month to reflect on my progress along with Fellows from all around the world. The Fellowship aims to integrate what we think and feel, so the last six months have been a journey of self-exploration and reflection that I (and, perhaps, most of us Fellows) don’t usually embark on. This puts me here now: what have I learned or dreaded over the last six months? In this piece, I share my insights on two issues: first, balancing research and management as part of my new role and, second, managing external relations.

As a key part of the research team at my organisation (and also as a researcher by vocation) my main dilemma as the Director has been finding the balance between management and research responsibilities. It turns out that I was right to fear this combination: over the last six months, I have not been able to find this balance. Luckily enough I had previously written work which has been under review, but doing new research remains a challenge. Internal management, which keeps the organisation operating, has offered some balance. Some activities that helped me with this were a joint stock-taking exercise and an ongoing organisational evaluation with an external expert. At the start of my appointment, we held a stock-taking exercise to review and plan our communication efforts with external help. This also served us as an exercise to develop on our vision and way forward. Additionally, we are finalising an institutional evaluation which has brought new ideas on how we move forward as an organisation.

On the external side- managing external relationships- I have given significant attention to connecting with other organisations and key stakeholders. People take time to get used to change. However, having been with the organisation since its founding, my familiarity has helped me. I have gotten to know and respect them, and am willing to dedicate some of my personal time to these relationships (establishing certain boundaries). With regards to relationships with policymakers, we had a window of opportunity:  there was a change of government since I got the new position, so a re-introduction was needed and timely. Lastly, a significant amount of my time has been devoted to external communications and media representation which has been a trademark of the organisation and an approach I wanted to maintain. As expected, the change of face needed time for internalisation, both by the media and by other external stakeholders.

Now on the third plane where I am attempting to finish this post (coming back from Berlin), I realise the downside of these six months has been my being potentially burnt-out for many reasons. However, after these past six months I have more or less made my own assessment of where we stand and have a clearer idea on how to deal with some of the challenges I have encountered so far. In both of these aspects I have gained insight from the OTT Fellowship and our joint work. The first lesson I take is that I am not alone in facing some of these challenges: they re-appear in various forms among many of the other Fellows. The second is that the balance of the external and internal responsibilities, along with the various tasks, will rarely, if ever, come by itself. In my opinion, a conscious and persistent effort is needed to find this balance. This will depend on the individuals and the organisation. There is never enough time for such efforts, but if one tries to book at least a little time to think about critical questions and how to deal with them personally, it can happen. Personally, the Fellowship was a conscious decision to set aside time to reflect on the change and also be exposed to new ideas, both of which are slowly, but surely, taking shape.