Think tank leadership: Functions and challenges of executive directors

[This working paper was published as part of the Working Paper Series.]


This paper analyses the experiences of think tank executive directors (EDs). The analysis is based on 45 in-depth interviews with current and former directors combined with the review of 14 job posts advertising for a think tank or policy research centre director. The paper offers insights into what think tank directors do, how they achieved their role and what challenges they face. The main responsibilities of think tank EDs can be summarised as internally facing (providing strategic direction, offering intellectual leadership, and managing operations) and externally facing (ensuring the availability of resources, and establishing partnerships as well as representing the organisation). Most directors in this study followed similar ‘researcher to director’ trajectories: they became directors of organisations they were closely linked to, moving up the ranks as researchers, which meant that they needed time to learn the skills necessary to lead an organisation. Some of the main challenges they face are obtaining sufficient and sustainable finding, recruiting and retaining qualified staff, and juggling too many tasks (which include combining management issues with research, communications or networking). In addition, some EDs encounter resistance or intense scrutiny of their work because of biases what a think tank leader looks like in terms of age, race or gender. Finally, the paper discusses the implications of these findings and offers recommendations for think tank leaders, boards and funders who can address some of the issues that currently limit the progression y professional development of leaders.