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More reflections on transitions in think tanks’ executive direction: FUSADES’ experience

imagesA few weeks ago I shared an article about background profiles and qualities of think tanks’ directors, followed by some reflections about the processes that led the think tanks FEDESARROLLO (Colombia) and CIPPEC (Argentina) to appoint a new Executive Director. In this new post I document and reflect on the experience of the Salvadoran Foundation for Economic and Social Development (FUSADES). One of the main differences is that while the former two transitions were resolved by selecting people already working at the organization, FUSADES’ new executive director came from outside the organization.But he did not come from so far away…

FUSADES is a private, non-profit development organization dedicated to the ongoing pursuit of the common good, centered on the human individual. Its strategy is based on promoting economic, social, political, legal and institutional public policy proposals to Salvadoran society. The organization has two centers of operation: the Research Center and the Development Center.The Research Center is a think tank, focused on thought and analysis. It develops research and oversight in the economic, social, environmental, political and institutional areas for public policy proposals. The Development Center promotes economic and social development in El Salvador, by implementing among other things, policy recommendations emerging from the Research Center studies. So FUSADES’ structure is broad in scope, with an average of 130 people in the staff.

In 2012, FUSADES’ Board started the search for a new Executive Director, who would have the challenge of replacing a director with more than 22 years in the institution who was retiring. The idea was that the arrival of the new director took place by the beginning of 2013. With that timing in mind, and because of the importance of the transition, the main candidate had to be identified with as much anticipation as possible.

Attending to the Salvadorian new political scenario, mainly characterized by a strong polarization between left and right wing parties, FUSADES’ Board sought someone who possessed political experience. Therefore, the President of the organization contacted Jose Angel Quiros, who was serving as the Executive Director of the Millennium Challenge Corporation Fund of El Salvador (FOMILENIO), a $461 million dollar development project aimed at promoting poverty reduction thru sustainable growth. Coming from the private sector, Quiros was also Deputy Minister of Finance for two years and a half and Minister of Public Works, Transportation and Housing and Urban Development for five years. With that profile, his vocation for public service seemed to be guaranteed.

However, while his recent professional experience had taken place in the political arena, Quiros did not come from so far away. He had previously had a five-year tenure at FUSADES. In fact, he is one of the organization’s founding members; he performed as the Director of FORTAS (a department within the institution) and reached the position of Director of Planning (second to the Executive Director). So he was very identified with the organization.

Once the candidate accepted the position, he held a meeting with all members of the Board, who wanted to express their most important strategic and operational concerns to the new principal. That helped the new director focus on a work plan per each working area.

The transition was completely smooth, underpinned by the simultaneous presence of him and the former director in the organization for one month. Introductory meetings with each Department’s Director within the organization were planned, as well as a general induction to the work of each team.

The relationship with area’s Directors, each of them “a king within his kingdom”, was a cause of concern for the new principal. So he took care of spending time with each of them to make them feel comfortable and keep their sense of belonging to the institution.

The new director was convinced of his role: the leader should have a strategic vision; he should think about shaping teams, give coherence to their efforts and direct them towards long-term objectives. The director must bring together and encourage people. He must be ‘the oil that makes engine parts work’. He was clear that he should work very closely with the rest of the team to make sure employee commitment was a first priority.

Among his first initiatives, all of which meant to consolidate FUSADES’ long-term work, the new Direction committed to developing a funding strategy and the design and implementation of an M&E system, with an emphasis on transparency and accountability.

Some important characteristics of the process

While the candidate did not come from within the organization, he was very identified with it because of his past experience. Moreover, as in CIPPEC’s experience, the new director was a Founding member of the organization.

Giving his vast political experience, the new director has a great knowledge of the policy making process and the political arena.

Regarding the recurrent dilemmas of “generalists versus specialists” and “academics versus managers”, FUSADES bet on a generalist and a clear managerial profile.

Unlike FEDESARROLLO’ (where the former director continues to be a researcher) or CIPPEC’ experiences (where the former directors are still linked to the organization through the Council of Executive Directors and Presidents of the Advisory Board), FUSADES’ former director did not keep any working link with the institution.

As in the case of CIPPEC and FEDESARROLLO, a particular concern for the new director was the relationship with the directors of the different areas within the organization. Giving them a space to express their concerns and working carefully to keep their sense of belonging to the institution seem to be key features of a successful transition process.