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Training Cases on Think-Tank Governance

Training Cases on Think-Tank Governance

 

 

 

 

I was pleased to be asked to contribute to the governance day of the Winter School for Think-Tankers, designed for young think-tank leaders, and organised in Geneva by On Think-Tanks, in collaboration with partners (Figure 1).

We divided the time into two parts: first, a discussion of the expectations Boards have of the staff of think-tanks, and vice-versa; and second, work on four practical cases, covering (a) Board renewal and constructing a diverse, representative and high-functioning Board; (b) Writing the strategy; (c) Linking the Business Plan to the strategy and to financial management; and (d) The risk register and managing crisis.

I am sharing the case studies in case they are of help to others. It is important to emphasise that no reference is intended to any individuals or to any or the organisations with which I have been associated over the years: these are intended to be generic cases, reflecting common problems.

There are many reference materials available on all the issues touched on here, including writing terms of reference for think-tank Boards. A quick search on the internet threw up some that seem useful and are listed at the end. It would be interesting to know about others’ favourite resources.

Board renewal and constructing a diverse, representative and high-functioning Board

The office was closed and everyone had left, but in one corner of the building a light still burned. Cecilia wanted to go home to her family, it was pizza night, and she had hardly seen the children all week. But there was a Board meeting coming up, and as Director of the think-tank, it was preying on her mind.

It wasn’t that the Board was unhelpful, or unkind. It wasn’t even that they were incompetent: most of them were reasonably au fait with the work of the think-tank. Actually, that was not surprising, because most of them had been Members of the Board for at least a decade. One or two had been members since its Foundation. But were they really a high-performing board? When Cecilia thought about her expectations, she had to conclude they were not. And as for diversity, well, that was another story.

Cecilia might have expected the Chair to act on Board renewal, but she knew that wasn’t going to happen. With a sigh, she realised that she would have to take the lead. She needed to remind herself what the statutes said; they would probably need revision. She also needed to work out what kind of Board she really wanted. That was the real challenge. There was a pad of paper on the desk in front of her. She pulled off a page, and wrote a heading:  ‘Board membership: what the think-tank needs’.

It was too late to do more. She thought of the pizza and her mouth began to water. Margarita, she wondered? Or Quattro staggioni? It was time to go home. Cecilia rose, stretched, and switched off the light.

Writing the strategy

The office was closed and everyone had left, but in one corner of the building a light still burned. Cecilia wanted to go home to her family, it was pizza night, and she had hardly seen the children all week. But there was a Board meeting coming up, and as Director of the think-tank, it was preying on her mind.

The training course she had been on had been useful. There was a difference, she had learned, between ‘managing’ and ‘leading’. Managing was about day-to-day delivery, making sure that outputs were delivered and the think-tank did not go bust. Leading, she now knew, was partly about setting a course for the future. But what should that course be? And how could she involve the Board? They had many ideas, she knew that only too well from the Board meetings she had attended. Some of their ideas, she knew that too, were even quite sensible. Don’t ask about the others!

There would obviously have to be a process, even a negotiation. Perhaps the starting point could be a table of contents. What should a strategy cover, actually? Cecilia pulled a pad across the desk and began to write. She started with the heading, carefully underlined for emphasis: Think-tank strategy – Table of Contents.

But it was late. She thought of the pizza and her mouth began to water. Margarita, she wondered? Or Quattro staggioni? It was time to go home. Cecilia rose, stretched, and switched off the light.

Linking the Business Plan to the strategy and to financial management

The office was closed and everyone had left, but in one corner of the building a light still burned. Max wanted to go home to his family, it was pizza night, and he had hardly seen the children all week. But there was a Board meeting coming up, and, as Chair of the think-tank Board, it was preying on his mind.

The finances had always been insecure, but next year looked especially difficult, what with the change of Government and the constant demand for short-term consultancy work. He could foresee real problems in the coming year: jobs at risk, the quality of work declining, and influence and impact evaporating. What was the point of all that work they had done on strategy if it couldn’t be delivered?

Max knew he would have to prepare the ground carefully, working with the Director, Cecilia. She was an academic by training, committed and enthusiastic, but not, like him, from a business background.  Max gazed at the ceiling and considered. Would a Business Plan help to focus the mind, he wondered? And could he and the other members of the Board use it to set targets. Key Performance Indicators perhaps. That seemed like a good idea. He reached for a sheet of paper, and wrote himself a heading: ‘Think-Tank Business Plan: Key Performance Indicators.

It was too late to do more. He thought of the pizza and his mouth began to water. Margarita, he wondered? Or Quattro staggioni? It was time to go home. Max rose, stretched, and switched off the light.

The risk register and managing crisis

The office was closed and everyone had left, but in one corner of the building a light still burned. Max wanted to go home to his family, it was pizza night, and he had hardly seen the children all week. But there was a Board meeting coming up, and, as Chair of the think-tank Board, it was preying on his mind.

Just that morning, he had seen on the TV a story about an organisation being hacked and its server used to spread fake news.  OMG, he had thought, that could have been us. As if there wasn’t enough to worry about, what with the shaky finances and the stack of problems he knew was building up inside the house. Of course, he was only the Chair of the Board, not the Chief Executive. That was Cecilia. But still, his reputation was on the line.

The Board, he thought, had probably better prepare a risk register. Some risks, he knew, were more likely than others; and some more damaging. That suggested two axes, likelihood and impact. He drew them idly on a sheet of paper. Did Cecilia already have this proforma in her files? And what did she have on it? He thought ‘I should probably have a go, then at least I will know what headings to look for’.

But it was too late to do more. He thought of the pizza and his mouth began to water. Margarita, he wondered? Or Quattro staggioni? It was time to go home. Max rose, stretched, and switched off the light.

Resources:

Board TOR:

Board competences and skills audit:

  

Writing a strategy

Business Plan

Risk management

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