Understanding the functions and challenges of think tank leaders

30 June 2021

Executive directors play a key role in a think tank’s success, credibility and ability to achieve impact. But while leadership has been a topic widely studied in the private sector, in civil society and in public service, much less is known about the experiences of think tank executive directors, whose roles, trajectories, and challenges are arguably different from leadership positions in other types of organisations.

A new OTT working paper aims to contribute to our understanding of think tank leaders, to help current and future leaders to learn from the challenges and experience of others.  One important contribution of the analysis is that it focused on the experiences of leaders from Asia, Africa and Latin America, while most of the existing literature on leaders of organisations focuses on the global North. Interestingly, the narratives of these directors regarding their work and the challenges they face were quite similar across regions. Here are some of our key findings.

Five essential roles of a think tank director

Think tank directors fulfil many roles, but we found that there are five essential ones – the first three are internally facing, the last two are externally facing and directors need to balance these two types of roles so that they can lead the organisation as a whole:

  • providing strategic direction,
  • offering intellectual leadership
  • managing operations,
  • ensuring the availability of resources, and
  • external engagement.

Four important skills that think tank leaders need

To fulfil these responsibilities, think tank leaders need to have skills that align to those proposed by Simon Maxwell in his 2009 policy entrepreneur toolkit:

  • Communication skills: think tank leaders should be confident communicators capable of navigating different audiences and establishing dialogues with and among their staff and a variety of stakeholders.
  • Interpersonal skills: directors should be great networkers capable of establishing strategic and constructive partnerships, so they need to be comfortable navigating different professional spaces.
  • Management skills: directors supervise day to day operations, which includes the ability to plan for how to deliver the think tank’s vision, oversee and motivate staff, conduct research and participate in public speaking events, so they have to be what one leader described as ‘jacks of all trades’.
  • Political savviness: to be effective leaders think tank directors need to be expert researchers, with extensive technical knowledge of the policymaking landscape, and be seen as credible by their staff and other stakeholders. Many of the directors we interviewed had experience in government positions, academia or in development organisations (as well as prior think tank experience).

Three biggest personal challenges think tank directors face

  • Learning how to manage a think tank: most directors we interviewed built their trajectories inside the organisation in which they became directors (or they founded). As such, they have plenty of research and policy experience, but some are new to day-to-day operational management. For instance, at the beginning some find it hard to be in charge of supervising and motivating other researchers or to dedicate more of their time to administrative issues than to research and writing.
  • Juggling many tasks at the same time: in the words of one director, he feels ‘thinly spread’ because of his many responsibilities. Directors need to be excellent multitaskers who can go from overseeing financial issues to writing a policy brief to talking to the media in one day.
  • Personal characteristics like age, race or gender: in many contexts, the role of executive director is associated with a certain age, race or gender, which can hinder the promotion of those who do not fit these expectations. And when someone from an under-represented group becomes director, they may experience self-doubt and require support from colleagues as they establish themselves in that position.

Five main organisational challenges leaders face

  • Securing funding: Their concern is not only to secure funding, which often comes in the way of consultancies or specific projects, but also to obtain core funding that allows the organisation to implement their own agenda.
  • Maintaining the think tank’s credibility and relevance: credibility is closely linked to the think tank’s research quality. Directors, therefore, spend much of their time ensuring that what they and their teams produce is based on rigorous research.
  • Increasing the demand for the think tank’s services: this is closely linked to the challenge of maintaining credibility; several directors were pioneers in their countries and had to create a space in which the kind of policy research and recommendations they offered were demanded by the government, the media or the public. They had to legitimise and show the value of the think tank’s work.
  • Recruiting and retaining qualified staff: in developing countries, think tanks often compete for the best talent with the private sector or with international organisations that can offer higher salaries. In order to retain the best talent, directors actively mentor and train young professionals so that they can grow within the institution, and they offer their staff stimulating incentives (such as travel for conferences or attending courses).
  • Adapting quickly to societal changes that affect how think tanks operate and communicate. Directors have to adapt to these changes swiftly and be ready to offer the right kind of products and services in changing contexts.

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.