Think tanks’ executive directors: background, profiles and qualities
Updated: Jun 2
Leading a think tank is not an easy task. Usually, these leaders need to make key decisions that involve a huge diversity of issues: from budgetary choices, to communicational ones; from organizational engineering to staff issues. Moreover, they have to deal with a broad range of stakeholders, both at the internal and external “fronts”: donors, policy makers, media, private sector, other colleagues; and the Board and staff.
All these tasks require different characteristics, and usually a single person does not possess all of them. Which is the right balance between academic or research knowledge and management capacities? What are the career niches that are most appropriate for think tank’s executive directors?
During the last year, GDNet, CIPPEC and onthinktanks have interviewed some current or former executive directors (Orazio Bellettini, founder and current director of Grupo FARO, Ecuador; Roberto Steiner, former director of FEDESARROLLO, Colombia; and Nicolás Ducoté, founder and former director of CIPPEC, Argentina) who reflected on these and other issues. In this post I document and reflect on some of their responses and suggestions.
Background, profiles and qualities
There are no ideal professional backgrounds, profiles or personal characteristics that would be required from each Executive Director. On the contrary, the profile should be directly related to the organization’s particular needs according to its current challenges and goals. However, interviewees acknowledged that there is some common experience and shared dilemmas that may be helpful to reflect upon when thinking about the profile of an Executive Director.
One of the recurrent dilemmas is whether to seek a generalist versus a specialist. Some may recommend finding someone with a general knowledge of public policy, public administration, social policy, which may give directors analytical skills to understand the various complex processes that surround how decisions are made and implemented in government. If the director is a specialist in a certain issue or discipline there may be a risk that the organization biases its work towards his or her area of interest.
Another relevant decision is whether to prioritize an academic vs. a managerial profile. It is important that the Executive Director has enough academic training and is able to understand and value academic considerations. However, he/she shouldn’t overemphasize academic production. He/she needs to also have a vocation for doing, which may coexist or not with his/her interest on theoretical reflection on policies. Still, a certain degree of academic achievement will give him/her legitimacy to discuss with other stakeholders about policy issues.
In terms of important skills and expertise, interviewees pointed out the following:
1. Knowledge of the national policy making process. An Executive Director with experience working within the State could contribute with his/her knowledge of the way decisions are actually made and implemented there. He/she may not only know about how processes work but also have important contacts and access to key influencers within different agencies.
2. Experience in volunteering. Having been a volunteer before may teach leaders to mobilise people and manage.
3. Make your team visible. The director must have a great deal of humility and teamwork ability, because he/she is the ambassador of the work of his/her peers. And he or she needs to be willing to communicate about the staff’s work, and help them to get recognition in their specific policy research fields: he/she must have absolute clarity that the organizations’ ‘knowledge wealth’ comes from researchers and their daily work.
4. Communication skills. Usually, the executive director is the “spokesman” for the organization. So he/she needs to be excellent in public relations and in facilitating the approach and dialogue between diverse people. Moreover, if the think tank is recognized as a champion in certain policy issues, he/she will probably be very demanded by media and other stakeholders. This requires enough communication skills and versatility to speak to a broad spectrum of audiences and on very different topics.
1. Executive Directors need to work in a team. Most of the issues they have to face when leading a think tank can’t be resolved individually; on the contrary, they require a multidisciplinary approach . This entails the challenge of identifying the right mix of human resources: board members, communicators, fundraisers, researchers, lobbyists, etc. Moreover, the Executive Director need to trust his/her team and empower them with genuine decision making capacities.
2. Invest time in internal processes. While the most visible work of a think tank is related to the production of its research areas or programs, Executive Directors also need to worry about the institutional dimension: influence planning, communication, fundraising, administration, project management, institutional memory, transparency, M&E, human resources. Their real interest in these aspects is proportional to the the time and resources allocated to them.
3. Retain the best staff as long as possible. There are learning curves; the best performance of people doesn’t come in the first or second year, but usually it’s within a five to ten year cycle. Thus, if there is a high rotation in important positions, the organisation loses value.
4. Learn from your peers. Leading a think tank is sometimes a huge challenge for only one person. In most cases, Executive Directors have not been directly trained to take this eclectic and challenging position. Hence, learning from other think tanks’ experiences, sharing institutional lessons, challenges and doubts with their peers can become an effective strategy for a director to enhance how he/she contributes to the organization’s growth and success.