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How to conduct a transition in the Executive Direction? Two experiences from think thanks in Latin America

As I wrote in a previous post, think tank’s directors need to deal with a huge diversity of issues: from budgetary choices, to communicational ones; from organizational engineering to staffing and leadership. Moreover, they are always interacting with a broad range of stakeholders, both at the internal and external “front”: donors, policy makers, political leaders, media, private sector, other colleagues; and the Board and staff.

After some years holding such a demanding position, it is likely (and sensible!) that the director will need a change. And this usually becomes a big challenge for think tanks. The aforementioned tasks require a comprehensive set of skills and expertise, and it is usually hard to find a person that gather’s all of them. How can think tanks find the right person? What should their professional and personal profile look like? Which should be the role of the current Executive Director and the Board during the process?

Last year, GDNet and CIPPEC interviewed a group of former executive directors who reflected on different issues related to their work. Two of them, Roberto Steiner (former director of FEDESARROLLO, Colombia), and NicolásDucoté(founder and former director of CIPPEC, Argentina) generously shared insight about the processes that led their organizations to appoint a new Executive Director. In this post I document and reflect on some of their responses and suggestions.

Time for changeTwo particular experiences

The transitions in the Executive Directions of Fedesarrollo (2012) and CIPPEC (2010) led to a similar outcome: both organizations selected a person who was already working there, holding different positions.

In the case of FEDESARROLLO, this decision is part of a tradition (even though it is not “written in stone”):  the person who arrives to the Executive Direction is someone who is working or has worked in the institution. Usually, the new Executive Director does not come out of the blue.

Moreover, the process at FEDESARROLLO had another particular characteristic: the former director decided to leave the Executive Direction, but not the organization. He continued working as an associate researcher. That decision gave the organization a valuable tool to face the process: time. The Board, actively involved in the search, had a long time to seek for the replacement: the choice was not made until the Board and the former Director felt completely comfortable with the candidate.

Finally, FEDESARROLLO chose a person who not only has some of the qualities and background mentioned above (he has studied abroad and has held key positions in the State), but also knew the organization very well, as he was a researcher and Editor of the magazine “Coyuntura Económica”, one of the most recognized publications from FEDESARROLLO.

Roberto highlighted that the fact that the outgoing director remains in the organization makes the transition easier, as the former one is in “the office next door” and available for whatever the new director needs.

Transition at CIPPEC took place in 2010, coinciding with the organizations’ 10th anniversary. One particular characteristic of CIPPEC was that the organization was jointly directed, with one General Director (in charge of improving organizational processes, who paid more attention to fundraising, etc.) and one Executive Director (in charge of day-to-day decisions). Moreover, both outgoing directors were founders of CIPPEC. It was the first transition in the Executive Direction, so it was a huge challenge and hence the organizations’ sustainability was a real concern: senior staff members could have also left the organization had it failed to find a proper new leader.

When both directors decided to leave, an open call was launched and the selection process was led by a “headhunting” consultant. In the end, a staff member was chosen. He was the Director of the Politics and Public Management Programme. Beyond having experience in multilateral organizations and the Argentinean State and bearing studies abroad, he was also a co-founder of CIPPEC. As in FEDESARROLLO’s experience, a personal involvement with the history and practices of the institution was a key feature when choosing new leaders.

Again, the two former directors helped the new one to have a soft transition: the three of them held weekly or monthly meetings for five months. At the same time, the continuity of the Board was very well managed: efforts were made to ensure that it did not largely change its leadership.

The new director spent almost six months engaging personally with key stakeholders: donors, policy makers, etc. Additionally, he held frequent bilateral meetings with the fundraising, communications and administration teams, during which those teams advised him in many institutional features that were related to his new role. This kind of support was key in ensuring an effective transition.

Regarding the staff, the new director had to invest time and energy into becoming a “leader among equals” (since he was a programme director like most of the senior staff members).Fortunately, leadership of these members was still very well acknowledged. He took the position knowing the flaws and virtues of each of the programme directors. In consequence, the transition was evaluated as successful because most of the senior staff stayed and accompanied the process.

Another important decision was to guarantee that the two former directors’ involvement in partisan spaces (after they had left) did not jeopardize CIPPEC’s reputation as an independent think tank. While it is difficult to assert that it was effectively reached, the transition was made with a very low profile in order to avoid possible impacts on CIPPEC’s image. On the other hand, former directors also committed to avoid hiring CIPPEC’s staff members for their new positions in the first year and they kept that promise. Moreover, both former directors are still linked to the organization through the Council of Executive Directors and Presidents of the Advisory Board, which meets every six months and brings together former and current directors and presidents.

FEDESARROLLO and CIPPEC’s experiences show the value of investing in internal leadership, in order to guarantee a supply of highly-qualified candidates for future transitions. Both organizations chose people who were already part of the institution. Moreover, in every case former directors remained linked to the institution.

However, this kind of “internal transition” may also entail some challenges. It could be that holding a colleague’s position creates additional pressure for the new director. On another note, it could happen that the staff continues to respond to the former leadership.

In conclusion, these dilemmas and strategies are not dissimilar to those think tanks face and develop when seeking to attract, retain and motivate the staff. I hope they help others to reflect on their current transitional challenges. Obviously, these are not the only ways of conducting transitions in the executive direction. Many organizations decide to hire someone from outside. It ultimately depends on the organizations’ needs and the characteristics of the available candidates. I have previously shared some tips for organizations seeking to attract senior staff.