Who should be the next director of the Overseas Development Institute?

31 October 2012

Only three years after I participated in the hiring of ODI’s new director, the organisation is back where it started: looking for a replacement. With the benefit of hindsight I see now that we, the staff members of the ‘B-team’ in the recruitment process (some members of the board were the ‘A-team’) did not have a clear idea of who ODI needed as its leader.

I am inspired by what Laura Zommer said about how CIPPEC hired its new Director of Communications: CIPPEC developed a wish list and went ahead and asked them, not to take the job but for recommendations for possible candidates. Lucky for them, the person who was at the top of that list decided that he wanted the job. This short post is in part an attempt to offer such a (wish) list of the kind of key skills and competencies that I think that a think tank director should bring to the position. And of course, this post is not just for or about ODI but is intended to inform other think tanks which may be going through a similar process. I am just using ODI as an example. And I truly hope it is taken as a constructive contribution to the very tough process of recruiting a director.

I am not going to go over the application pack item by item to address the question of who would be a right fit for ODI (you can read it here; or I can email it to you if you prefer). Instead let me pick on the very last two sentences in the pack as a way of introducing my own ideas:

ODI seeks to increase the effectiveness of its global leadership through having a diversity of gender, ethnic and cultural perspectives. Therefore, ODI encourages candidates from under-represented groups to apply for the Executive Director position.

The first thing that comes to mind is that this is not entirely correct: There is no reason why someone has to belong to an under-represented group to be able to understand gender, ethnic and cultural perspectives; or to be an effective global leader. Furthermore think tanks are not representative bodies such as a political party or a grassroots organisation and so representation should not really be their key concern. The director should, however, be able to use research tools to reach and support under-represented groups. This is hard but it is a challenge shared by all think tank directors; even if they do come from an under-represented group. So the suggestion the somehow being a woman or from a minority is an advantage seems rather odd.

It is also misleading because in fact ODI, and most think tanks with a similar business model, cannot get a complete outsider for this or any other of its income generating posts. For ODI, like for most fee earning international development think tanks and consultancies in the UK, the bottom line is an unfortunately unavoidable reality.  The organisation needs people who are already in or connected to the industry and therefore cannot afford to hire too many (if any) people from developing countries; who, while may be perfectly competent, are just not always connected to the right networks nor have the fee history necessary to cover the ovearheads that a London based organisation demands.

This limits the choices ODI has. And since another UK Aid development industry insider would be just too boring, I think ODI needs, what the UK Aid industry needs I fact, is an American: a gringo.

An American for the job

A Latin American (technically also an American), an African or an Asian would probably be much better at injecting new ideas to ODI and a new lease of life into the UK Aid industry but he or she might struggle to fit in. The policy and business networks that ODI depends on are too strong and tight to simply build them from zero in a few months. It is possible of course that the candidates may have been already working in the UK or globally in the same circles as ODI but then they would not be that interesting anymore.

To some extend, given ODI’s focus on DFID (and a few other global players), knowledge of the international development scene is of more operational important than knowledge of the politics of specific national and regional policy processes.

So in a way what ODI needs right now is an odd combination of an intellectual outsider with his or her own policy and business networks and with experience in the same international development scene: someone who can really challenge the organisation, the industry in the UK, and DFID. And it occurs to me that that person may be found in the United States.

Not just any American, of course. I am not advocating for a complete ideological opposite to ODI. All think tanks need someone who has similar ideological views (the first question I’d ask if I was being interviewed is: “what does the organisation believe in?”) but who can still think differently. It needs someone who respects the good work the think tank does but is willing to challenge what is not good enough. The new director should be able to build on the good roles the organisation plays in its sector but at the same time challenge those that undermine it and shake it quite a bit, while still being able to cover the bottom line. He or she should make it possible to give a clear answer to the question of what the organisation believes in.

Over the last couple of years I have been working with several directors and have been trying to encourage others for set up new think tanks. It is quite clear to me that the most important characteristic of a director is that he or she has a clear vision for the organisation. Figuring it out on the job may not be possible; certainly not in an organisation so large and complex as ODI.

Being a leader goes beyond just being a good researcher. A couple of years ago at a meeting of think tank directors, Norma Correa pointed that the ones who were the most vocal, dynamic, and interesting had one thing in common: they were Kennedy School of Government graduates. They appeared to be particularly driven and capable of imagining and communicating the entire think tank effort (research, communications, and management) in a clear and cohesive way.

When I found out that Alison Evans had resigned, three names (in no particular order) immediately came to mind. Although I recognise that they may not be interested or available, I think they may help to illustrate the kind of qualities that may be needed in a think tank; and one like ODI in particular (and I hope they take this as a compliment). I thought of them first because they all have this first quality of being able to convey a clear vision and mission for their efforts.

In no particular order:

A critical mind: William Easterly, because, although an academic, he is just effortlessly cool. Along with Bret Easton Ellis and Alain De Bottom from among all the people I follow, he can get away with tweeting statements without hyperlinks. He is not only knowledgeable, Bill is also globally known and respected as a researcher, and he, above all, has an independent and critical mind. His is the kind of mind that a think tank with the long history of ODI needs to inspire its staff and associates to take new risks and make a real intellectual difference. His is the kind of mind that the Aid industry in the UK needs to wake up from its obsession with targets, urgent measurement, and indicators.

William Easterly is Professor of Economics at New York University and Co-director of the NYU Development Research Institute, which won the 2009 BBVA Frontiers of Knowledge in Development Cooperation Award. He is the author of two books: The White Man’s Burden: Why the West’s Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Harm and So Little Good (2006) and The Elusive Quest for Growth: Economists’ Adventures and Misadventures in the Tropics (2001). The former won the FA Hayek Award from the Manhattan Institute.  He has also published more than 60 peer-reviewed academic articles. He was named in 2008 and 2009 among the Top 100 Global Public Intellectuals by Foreign Policy Magazine, and ranks among the top 100 most cited academic economists worldwide. His writings have appeared or been covered in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Financial Times, CNN, PBS, ABC, and other media outlets. He was Co-Editor of the Journal of Development Economics and wrote and directed the Aid Watch blog. He is Research Associate of NBER, senior fellow BREAD and nonresident Senior Fellow at Brookings. He is also the 11th most famous native of Bowling Green, Ohio.

The storyteller: Lawrence MacDonald: For sometime now I have thought that Lawrence’s next job should be in as a think tank director. In my view, he embodies the idea of an international development think tank director: he can talk shop and do it in a way that is interesting; and he understands the art of creating and promoting ideas probably more than anyone I’ve met so far. Think tanks often try to turn researchers into great communicators but here is someone who is already a great communicator and understands research. Maybe this is a better approach for an organisation so munch involved in attempting to affect global debates. Because Lawrence understands how ideas can be developed and nurtured in a think tank he may be able to move ODI away from a project-focused to an ideas-focused work portfolio. And, according to his CV, he speaks Mandarin Chinese, which seems sort of or a necessary condition for anyone applying to lead an organisation claiming to be global.

Lawrence MacDonald is vice president for communications and policy outreach at the Center for Global Development. He also oversees the Center’s operations. A development policy communications specialist and former foreign correspondent, he works to increase the influence of CGD’s research and analysis by leading an integrated communications program that includes events, publications, media relations, online engagement, and government and NGO outreach.

Before joining the Center in October 2004, MacDonald was a senior communications officer at the World Bank where he provided strategic communications advice to chief economists, coordinated the preparation of research publications and created the World Bank Research web site. He was founding editor of the Bank’s Policy Research Report series and launched two innovative yet enduring web tools: the Bank’s Online Media Briefing Center and the International AIDS Economic Network (IAEN), a virtual community. Prior to that he worked in East and Southeast Asia for 15 years as a reporter and editor for The Asian Wall Street Journal, Agence France Presse, and Asiaweek Magazine.

The global entrepreneurTony Barclay is responsible for building one of the largest (employee owned) international development consultancies in the world, DAI. He is an experienced manager and knows, from his own experience and training, how to solve the problems that an organisation like ODI faces (I have asked him). And he is also a classic leader: he started right at the bottom and worked his way up the organisation. As a consequence he knows how everything works. He knows how long things take, how much things cost, what is a good piece of research, what is good consultancy work, and how to deliver them. He knows about finances, HR, logistics, boards, communications, fundraising, business development, and speaks Swahili. Under his leadership, ODI’s systems and processes would run smoothly and the researchers would be able to dedicate more time on doing what they do best: research. And his global experience would make it easier to transform ODI into a global organisation.

Tony Barclay is DAI’s former Chief Executive Officer and has served on the Board of Directors continuously since 1979. He teaches management courses at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service and Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs. He is a Trustee of The Mountain Institute and chairs the board of Social & Scientific Systems, Inc., an employee-owned public health research firm. In September 2011, on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the Peace Corps, he became chair of the board of the National Peace Corps Association.

Tony began his development career in 1968 with Peace Corps service in Kenya, returning there for Ph.D. research in anthropology on a pioneering rural development project. He joined DAI’s development consulting staff in 1977. Tony is the senior author or editor of several books published by DAI and has directed numerous policy, evaluation, and program design studies. He was named President in 1990 and succeeded DAI’s founder, Don Mickelwait, as CEO in 1999. Tony is well known in the development community as a spokesman for development firms that deliver services to the U.S. Agency for International Development, European development agencies, and multilateral development banks. He has been a board member of the Corporate Council on Africa, is past President of the Washington Chapter of the Society for International Development, is a founding board member of the U.S. Global Leadership Coalition, and served for three years as president of its nonprofit affiliate, the Center for U.S. Global Engagement. Tony earned a B.A. in history at Yale University and a Ph.D. in applied anthropology at Columbia.

There are, of course, other comparable men and women who I could have included in my ideal short-list (Nancy Birdsall, Maureen O’Neill, etc.) but I’ve gone for these three to make a point about the skills I think a director needs (and also because I know about them a bit more). By this I do not mean that there aren’t any good possible British or other European candidates for the job but given that I genuinely think that ODI (and the industry as a whole in the UK) needs some new blood I’ve gone for candidates from outside of Europe. And it seems to me that the best place to find the right fit for the organisation, without compromising the bottom line, might be across the pond.

Of course, the scale at which they work, or have worked, may well be beyond that of ODI and other European think tanks: in terms of ideas, budgets/logistics, and politics, so I am not sure if they would be interested in the job. But maybe the panels in charge of recruiting the new director will consider their CVs and compare them with those of the candidates they do get.

So what are these key skills that they could bring to the job?

Simon Maxwell used to say that think tanks need people with four skills or aptitudes: they have to be good networkers, storytellers, engineers (or managers), and (political) fixers. I think they also need great critical minds. And the director of a think tank definitely needs to have all five:

  • They must have a critical mind capable of developing great ideas and constantly think about their own roles and organisations (thinking directors such as Orazio Bellettini or Nicolas Ducoté);
  • They must be able to develop robust and convincing narratives and perform as great storytellers;
  • They must have, nurture, develop strong networks around them that position them and their organisations in the boundaries of the several types of players and institutions in their policy spaces;
  • They must be well informed and sufficiently well involved in the politics of policy to be able to help develop and lead the strategies of their think tanks; and
  • They have to be excellent managers and, more importantly, entrepreneurs.

These are not easy skills for one person to have. But I think that my choice of candidates suggests that, to a degree, it is possible to come close.

If all goes well, maybe in 5 years time, and if the bottom line does not matter much anymore, I’ll be putting forward a Latin American, an African, and an Asian for the job. For an organisation that has the intention to affect the lives of people in these parts of the world, this seems much more appropriate. But not yet.