Who will lead the think tank?

    Although there are several ways to understand leadership, in this section we are referring to the senior operating person who is responsible for ensuring the day-to-day running of the organisation: the executive director (+)CEO, general manager or president are other names to refer to the person with the highest responsibility for day-to-day operations. . We will reflect on the key responsibilities this role undertakes, the mix of skills (profile) that an executive director should have, and the key challenges that most executive directors face.(+)This section draws from: - Mendizabal, E. (2016), Setting up a think tank: Step by step. Learn more(+)Mendizabal, E. (2014c), Resources for executive directors: Competences, structure and tools. Learn more(+)Echt, L. (2013), Think tanks’ executive directors: Background, profiles and qualities. Learn more(+)Ramos, C. (2021) Think tank leadership: Functions and challenges of think tank executive directors. Learn more

    Key responsibilities

    Executive directors are key for think tanks to be successful, have credibility and achieve impact. They are responsible for key roles and functions that range from day-to-day management to more strategic tasks. Although specific functions vary between organisations, there are five key responsibilities that executive directors fulfil:

    Providing strategic direction: delineating what the organisation’s mission is and drawing a strategy for how to achieve it. Strategic direction also entails being able to identify, anticipate and react to changes in the organisation, external or internal (e.g. new parties in power, COVID-19, shrinking funding).

    Management of operations: the executive director is ultimately responsible for a variety of supervisory tasks to ensure that the organisation runs smoothly. This includes general administrative issues, human resource management (strategy, hiring and line management of senior staff), managing and overseeing finances, engagement with the board, and project management and/or monitoring.

    Providing intellectual leadership and ensuring research quality: think tank leaders should provide intellectual leadership to ensure that the organisation produces high quality research that is credible and relevant to the public and to policymakers. This involves functions that range from establishing and maintaining the relevance and credibility of the organisation, to research management and quality assurance, and even mentoring others.

    Fundraising and ensuring the availability of resources: leaders manage existing funding sources while actively working to attract new ones, and ensuring that the organisation has the funds that it requires to operate. This is not to say that executive directors are the only ones undertaking fundraising activities, as researchers in many organisations actively and successfully fundraise, but it is the responsibility of the executive director to ensure the coordination of fundraising activities so that there are enough funds to take the organisation towards its goals.

    Representing the organisation, establishing partnerships, and building networks: executive directors regularly interact with a wide range of stakeholders, such as funders, policymakers, their own staff, the board of directors, external partners or the media. They engage with them for different purposes: establishing alliances, advocacy, advice giving (or receiving it as well), dissemination and outreach, negotiating, discussing proposals, exploring funding opportunities, examining key issues, informal conversation etc. The executive director is the main representative of the think tank; they serve as a spokesperson, are in charge of establishing and maintaining partnerships, enhance the profile of the organisation and engage with policymakers, media and other key stakeholders.

    The first three functions are more internal to the organisation, while the last two are outward focused. It is important for directors to be able to balance these two aspects of the role. For instance, focusing too strongly on the internal issues may limit time dedicated to obtaining the resources and external validation that the staff needs to function. Striking a balance is difficult and, more often than not, executive directors feel that they are spread thin. It is important to also establish a good team (see Who will work on it?) and work with the board when necessary (see Who will govern it?)

    Box. Undertaking research

    Although many think tank leaders want to devote time to their own research, the reality is that the day-to-day running of the organisation leaves them no time to do so. We have found that this related to the think tank’s model, but also to the stage it is at. But it is important to bear in mind that executive directors seldom have the time to devote to their own research work, and if this is something that you want to do you will have to establish the structures and support to do so.


    Even though there are a mix of skills and characteristics that are needed for the job, the profile, personal characteristics, or background that a think tank leader should have vary greatly between organisations and are also a function of the context. According to a typology of policy entrepreneurship developed by Simon Maxwell, think tank leaders, and policy entrepreneurs in general, need to combine a set of certain key skills and characteristics (the strength and mix of each will vary, though):

    • Communication skills: the leader should be a good storyteller who can confidently navigate different audiences and engage with each to achieve the organisation’s goals.
    • Interpersonal skills: the executive director should be a good networker who has strong public relations skills and is well connected in order to fulfil some of the most important responsibilities of the think tank. Responsibilities include representing the organisation, raising funds and mobilising and empowering people to deliver the organisation’s mission.
    • Management skills: the leader should be an engineer who is involved ‘on the ground’. They need to supervise day-to-day operations while being active in high-level meetings. Academic expertise may provide legitimacy about policy issues, but management skills will make it possible to deliver the mission. Good management practice suggests that directors should give leeway to their teams and help them gain recognition in their fields. It is also important to keep an eye on younger researchers and plan and prepare progression of staff. Finally, leaders should also be able to think about business models, identify and solve problems, translate policy problems into research projects, and anticipate and manage change within the organisation.
    • Political savviness: this means being a fixer – someone who is knowledgeable, authoritative and recognised by their peers on particular issues so that they can convince decision makers and other audiences on how to approach them.
    • Commitment to the organisation: although not part of Simon Maxwell’s typology, a commitment to the think tank project and being willing to devote at least five years to get it established would be a requirement for the leader of a new organisation. Being dedicated to success will help deal with the many challenges that come with leading a think tank.

    Finally in terms of knowledge and expertise the following are important:

    • A nuanced understanding of think tanks and/or of evidence-informed policy.
    • Knowledge of the context in which the think tank will operate, including policymaking processes.
    • Knowledge of the topics that the think tank will focus on.
    • Being capable of mobilising resources.

    Box. Key skills for thinktankers

    Watch here Simon Maxwell explain key skills for thinktankers.

    It is interesting to reflect on how your profile will influence your think tank’s activities and whether you need to seek complementary roles to balance your profile, or work with people with similar orientations. This will depend on the type of think tank you wish to develop and your policy impact aims.


    As a think tank leader, you are likely to face many challenges, and identifying them could help you prepare in advance. These challenges can be summarised into personal and organisational categories.

    Personal challenges:
    Juggling too many functions: think tank leaders are responsible for many tasks that range from overseeing day-to-day operations and conducting research to meeting with funders or talking to the media. Some leaders eventually find themselves spread too thin and lacking the time or knowledge to deal with everything. It is thus important to ensure that there is support available, be it team members, external services or board members, to help deal with the many responsibilities.
    Personal characteristics: in some cases, leaders, or think tank staff in general, experience challenges in how they are perceived by others. Unfortunately, there is prejudice and/or discrimination in the sector and sometimes leaders of a particular gender, race or age experience pushback from others they engage with. This is not intended to deter anyone from any position, on the contrary, we should work as a sector to ensure this does not continue to happen.
    Learning to manage a think tank: many think tank leaders have been trained as researchers rather than as ‘managers’ so they find they have to learn new functions on the job. They must prepare in advance for the management tasks that they will need to undertake (or appoint someone with those skills). This guide is a good place to start (see the resources sections for more tools on management).

    Organisational challenges:
    Securing funding: establishing a sustainable funding base is a perennial challenge for think tank leaders and one of the main issues that keeps them up at night.
    Establishing and maintaining the credibility and relevance of the organisation: think tanks need to be perceived as credible sources of information if they want to participate in the policy process. They should be attractive to funders and engage with reputable networks. Therefore, think tank leaders need to ensure that their products and services meet the rigour and quality necessary to be credible and that their strategic vision allows the organisation to stay relevant.
    Recruiting and retaining staff: think tank leaders face this challenge in two ways. One is when there are not enough qualified researchers in a particular country and the other is when there are competent researchers but not enough funds to attract and keep them.
    Building the field: in some countries, think tanks are relatively new or not necessarily known by policymakers, the media and other stakeholders, so directors and founders have had to create a demand for their ideas and services. Being a pioneer means having to build a legitimate space in the policymaking arena and showing why the services offered by a think tank are useful.

    Box. Challenges faced when funding a think tank: CPPR in India

    D. Dhanuraj is the founder and chairman of the Centre for Public Policy Research (CPPR) in India. Read the full interview here.

    ‘These were some of the challenges I faced:

    • Setting up systems and processes relevant for think tanks
    • Updating and keeping interest in topics of the institutions
    • Training researchers and preparing them for bigger assignments
    • Wearing the hat of a social entrepreneur and also of an academic
    • Becoming involved in educational work while continuing networking activities satisfactorily

    Think tanks in India are still fairly new. The culture is evolving. Unlike their counterparts in the western world, think tanks in India have limited patronage. This raises challenges on the sustainability front. The governments should be open to the role of the think tanks and acknowledge them, since the government is the ultimate beneficiary. The economic growth of the country may help think tanks in the long-run as more funds and philanthropists may start supporting the work done by these organisations. Freedom of expression is another essential factor that needs to be guaranteed for think tanks to be able to meet their objectives.’

    Box. Challenges of a regional think tank: Task Justice Network Africa

    Alvin Mosioma is the executive director and co-founder of Tax Justice Network Africa, which is a pan-African organisation. Read the full interview here.

    As a leader, running an organisation that operates across different regions means that you are thinly spread. Working in all these different areas requires intense concentration. Fundraising and developing strategic partnership are huge work. In all these different tasks you end up finding yourself thinly spread. For instance, the role implies many engagements, such as speaking engagements, meetings people expect you to attend, calls you need to have, etc. That is a challenge I am a ‘Jack of all trades’. I am doing organisation management, I am doing strategy, I am doing board-related issues, I am working with funders, thinking about the next steps of our strategies. I have to engage in all these different tasks as head of the organisation because I am the face of the organisation and that means I am thinly spread.

    As an organisation, I think that the biggest challenge we face is that we are a regional organisation working at different levels, but also, we are membership driven. So, there are tough choices you have to make about how involved you are in country-level activities, in regional or global processes which put a lot of pressure on the organisation, in terms of where we should be allocating our resources.

    As a regional network you want to be able to address the different constituencies and that can be resource-intense, but then, you are struggling as a small organisation to harness all those resources.

    As an institution, we started with the unique position of being the only regional civil society network that is working on tax, but because of this the expectation for us to respond to all tax issues across the continent is bigger than the size of our organisation and the resources we have. Another related challenge is language, because we operate in the continent and we are multilingual – anglophone, francophone, lusophone, etc.

    When to let go?

    There will come a time when you might need to step down from leading the think tank (if you are the executive director) either because it is best for you or for the organisation.(+)This section draws from: Echt, L. (2018), Leadership transitions: Lessons from three Latin American think tanks Learn more(+)and Mendizabal, E. (2013g), Director’s profiles and how to replace them. Learn more Executive directors lead on a wide range of issues: staffing, fundraising, budgeting decisions, communication issues. And after a time in the role a change is needed to infuse new ideas into the organisations and also for the director to rest (Echt, 2018).

    The skills that an executive director needs to have are varied, and most importantly are acquired by experience. And so it is a good idea to plan for a leadership transition early on in the think tank’s life. Successful experiences of leadership transitions show the value of investing in internal leadership (e.g. CIPPEC, Fedesarrollo, Grupo Faro) to guarantee ‘a supply of highly qualified candidates for future transitions’ (Mendizabal, 2013g). In all of these cases, organisations chose leaders from within their ranks. Indeed, it is very common in think tanks in the global south for executive directors to take up this position in organisations where they worked in previous roles. This has the advantages of a leader who is familiar with the organisational structure, the staff, the donors, and so on. But a limitation is that this could reduce the chances of bringing change to the organisation (Ramos 2021).

    There are alternatives to choosing leaders from within the organisation. Here are a few recommendations for when that moment comes (Mendizabal, 2013g):

    • Headhunting companies can be useful, but use your networks and go beyond your usual communication channels to find candidates (explore other sectors and even countries).
    • The board is critical to the process and must own it.
    • The staff should also be involved, and be invited to parts of the interview process.
    • Give candidates a chance to get to know the organisation (even disclosing private information) before their final interviews (it makes the process richer and easier to choose the best candidate).
    • Expect a long process and prepare the staff, partners and audiences for it.
    • Former directors should keep their distance (after the handover process). This is even more important if the director was also the think tank’s founder.

    Box. How to plan for a transition process? Lessons from three Latin American think tanks

    In 2012 and 2013 Leandro Echt interviewed some former and current directors and discussed strategies for planning for a transition process. Here are the lessons from these interviews:

    1. Identifying the new leader.

    • Professionals with working experience in the organisation are a plus. In some organisations, it is the tradition to hire someone from within.
    • Investing in internal leadership may offer a supply of highly qualified candidates for future transitions.
    • Experience in politics and knowledge of the policymaking process are important assets.

    2. Managing the transition process.

    • Support from the outgoing director and the board is critical for a smooth transition.
    • Keep the outgoing leaders engaged with the organisation (internally but also externally with key stakeholders such as donors or policymakers) until the new director is fully settled.
    • New directors need to gain the support of their former colleagues and the staff: give them space and time to express their concerns and ideas.

    3. Caring about the external image and sustainability.

    • Depending on the reasons for leaving and the context, the organisations needs to choose between a private or public transition. Both are adequate but it needs to be decided and managed in the way that the think tanks sees fit.

    In short, if you have a clear understanding of what a think tank is and you are sure that you want to set up one: start now. A good way to start is to go back to the three capabilities we included in the introduction:

    • Think ahead about the possible futures your think tank will encounter.
    • Think again and reconsider previous ideas or projects to see how to obtain better or different outcomes.
    • Think across by crossing boundaries and learning from the experiences of others, understanding their contexts and their reasons for choosing certain options.