Understanding the roles and functions of think tank executive directors: implications and recommendations

27 July 2021

A new OTT working paper offers insights into what think tank directors do, how they achieved their role and what challenges keep them busy. The analysis focuses on the experiences of leaders from Asia, Africa and Latin America. An interesting finding across these regions is that the directors in the study had similar career trajectories: they became directors of organisations they were closely linked to and, having built their careers mostly as researchers, they found themselves learning new skills as managers, communicators and networkers.

The experiences of these directors, along with an analysis of job descriptions and expectations for director positions, are helpful for current and future think tank leaders.

  1. If think tank leaders follow ‘researcher to director’ career paths they are likely to find themselves in leadership positions without the necessary skills to lead. An excellent researcher has a different skill set a think tank director. These skills – management, networking, communications, etc. – can and should be learned along the way.
  2. Internal promotion processes can replicate past biases, such as gender or socio-economic background of the leaders or management preferences. This can stifle opportunities of reform under new leadership. Many think tank directors are familiar only with their organisation, which may make it difficult for them to identify shortcomings and to enact integral changes when needed.
  3. Preference for certain skills, qualifications and experiences affects a director’s leadership approach and can therefore impact the organisation. Leadership is not for everyone, but smaller think tanks tend to choose leaders among their top researchers, without recognising that their main motivation may lie within research itself rather than with managing the organisation.
  4. Stereotypes about the physical appearance of a leader affect the career progression of members from underrepresented groups who may encounter resistance and intense scrutiny of their work which, in turn, may lead to frustration once they become leaders.
  5. Female leaders still face more work-life balance problems than men, as they may find themselves choosing whether to prioritise their career or their personal life once their responsibilities at work increase. This limits their ability and willingness to stay in leadership roles when the organisational culture does not enable their growth.
  6. When directors are in charge of too many tasks and do not have a reliable senior team to delegate to, they may burn out or neglect important issues. The director is only as good as the senior team they are surrounded by.
  7. Attracting and retaining qualified staff is a challenge for many directors. Many find it difficult to recruit excellent researchers in their contexts, or cannot afford to pay them competitive salaries. However, a think tank’s success depends on more than having exceptional researchers: communicators and programme managers are also key to carry the organisation forward.
  8. Obtaining core, flexible, long-term funding is becoming harder for most organisations. The challenge for directors is not so much to ensure this kind of funding, but to manage the combination of financial arrangements in a way that can balance obtaining funds from diverse donors while maintaining the credibility and independence of the organisation.
  9. Context changes, both national and global, deeply affect the work of think tanks. Many are currently facing growing polarisation, misinformation or a disbelief in experts. If directors are not fully aware of these societal changes and do not display creativity in adapting their teams, products and strategies, they risk losing relevance and credibility.
  10. The paper focuses on what think tank directors said in interviews, but there are implications arising from what they did not say. In particular, most directors did not discuss the importance of skills such as emotional intelligence. For instance, the ability to acknowledge and manage the unwanted feelings that staff might locate in their leaders, or to empathise with anxiety or stress in their teams to find ways to contain these negative emotions and create a positive organisational culture.

Given these implications, the working paper also provides recommendations for think tank leaders, boards, and funders, who can address some of the issues that currently limit the progression of leaders:

Creating and participating in leadership programmes that provide leadership capacity building. Many think tank executive directors do not have specific training in leadership or management. Once they transition into a leadership role, they must learn new skills in areas such as financial and human resource management or communications.

Establishing senior positions that support some of the tasks of the executive director. Creating senior positions that can take on some of the tasks of the executive director will help address the challenge of juggling too many responsibilities. For instance, IMCO in Mexico has a position called institutional development director, which is in charge of contributing to the strategic, operational and financial sustainability of the organisation in support of the director.

Implementing programmes that facilitate work-life balance. Women are an integral part of the think tank workforce, but few make it to the director position. This is explained by many barriers such as discrimination, stereotypes, particular contexts, and the disproportionate care burdens that women are responsible for. To address these care burdens, think tanks can offer family-friendly solutions that benefit not only women, but any employee who needs flexibility for care duties. Think tanks can also encourage women to participate in leadership training programmes and to apply for promotions when they become available.

Working towards more diverse and inclusive think tanks. To change conceptions of who is or can be a successful think tank director, it is important to encourage the professional ascension of women and minorities and create a conducive, enabling organisational culture where they can thrive and lead. One of the directors interviewed for the paper explained that her organisation actively incorporates women and indigenous people into their staff, their assembly and their board of directors.

Working towards broadening the definition of whose work is needed in a think tank. Some think tank leaders still consider think tanks as mostly research organisations. However, outstanding communicators, networkers and managers are also key, so the idea of who is needed in a think tank’s team should be broadened and diversified to include different profiles.

Encouraging internal career progression. Many think tanks do not have clear paths for promotion towards leadership positions. Many directors are already actively working on this by recruiting young researchers and mentoring them, offering supportive workplaces where they can grow and gain confidence. Providing opportunities for talented thinktankers to gain new skills, grow their networks and assume positions with increased responsibilities will help retain them within the organisation.

Read the full paper for a more detailed analysis of think tank leadership.