I've decided to submit this anonymously so I can be as honest as possible without 'outing' the orgs I've engaged with, or to accidentally poison the well for myself with prospective employers. But if anyone reading this would like to learn more, happy to give more specific advice to you but with strict confidentiality - so feel free to DM.
I suspect it shouldn't be too hard to 'out' me. Please don't - I think it's important to be frank about where I've seen hiring not go well, and these reflections could hurt those who have inspired them because feedback is something you need to be ready to receive. I do not want this to happen, so I am making more general criticisms and I would not have written this if I thought it would inadvertently target some orgs / people.
EA is bottlenecked by 'good senior ops people'; we hear this a lot. But my experience hiring, building and running teams myself and engaging with EA organisations, has made me think that there is a lot of room for improvement when it comes to attracting and hiring these people. So these are personal reflections on what I think a lot of EA orgs get wrong when it comes to hiring these roles and what I think can change to unblock the bottleneck.
- Many EA org 'operations specialists' jobs will not appeal to the calibre of candidate you want because:
- the priority tasks are often mundane, not challenging and not the best use of their skills
- the role is mostly positioned as "enabling the existing leadership team" to the extent that it seems like "do all the tasks that I / we don't like"
- hiring managers give the impression that they will likely discount the perspectives and skills the new hire could bring
- I have a sense of excessive scepticism towards people who are not 'EA / long-termist enough' when comes to hiring, but this will prevent you getting high calibre talent who can bring diversity of experience and new ideas. Not 'EA enough' is either:
- not having worked in a recognised EA / long-termist org before
- not being bought into what are considered almost doctrinal EA / long-termist ideas which a reasonable person could have well-grounded objections to
Solutions are given in the final section.
Where am I coming from, and what type of roles am I referring to?
I've worked as a generalist in management positions for about nine years, mostly project roles starting up new teams to build / make something. I've run teams of 20+ people on complex multi-stakeholder projects, making key strategic decisions and reporting to very senior stakeholders.
In the last few months, I've been approached directly many times to apply for fairly senior 'ops roles'. The type of roles I was engaged over, and that I am talking about in the rest of this post, would be things like...:
- Managing Director / Chief Operating Officer / Chief of Staff
- Director / Head of Operations
- Director / Head of Special Projects
Why this matters?
Having looked at a lot of job roles, a lot of them are unappealing in how they are written or a less than positive impression gets made by the hiring team. So I didn't apply to many of them.
My assumption is that if I'm feeling this, other good candidates might feel the same.
The skills and attributes that a senior 'ops person' will have
Someone qualified to do any of the roles above will have the following skillsets, and will consider their comparative advantage to lie in...:
- Strategic thinking, understanding how the organisation should tackle its goals, what its comparative advantage is and what it should leave to others to do
- Importantly, the ability to brutally prioritise, challenging other senior team members to 'kill their darlings' in order to do the most important work, especially as the wider environment shifts
- Leadership, holding space internally to mould alignment, and leading the team through ambiguity, complexity and challenges with people feeling supported; and knowing how to build alliances externally to get things done
- Learning quickly and figuring out what to do next; whether that's on organisational risks (e.g. funding), operational risks (e.g. legal / governance), or new subject matter central to the organisations functions (e.g. that new EA thing everyone's buzzing about)
- Excellent stakeholder management skills
- Great organisational culture development skills
- Implementing processes that improve how the team works, such as hiring / induction / general HR; processes for drafting and signing off external publications; co-working / virtual working
- Coaching, developing and enabling team members to do some of the more simple tasks that fall in the buckets above
- Intuition of what leads to success / failure, based on the work they've done and having observed other people / teams
Many EA org 'operations specialists' jobs will not appeal to ops specialists
Why you ask?
The priority tasks are often mundane, not challenging and not the best use of their skills
I've read job descriptions (JD) for roles which are more than 50% skillset 6. Implementing processes.
Sometimes this might be necessary in the short-term while everyone is in 'start-up mode' and will change as more hires are made. But it still sends alarm signals that the existing team does not have a good understanding of the skills I outlined which a good hire can bring. If this is the starting point, I think many people qualified to do the role, who know what their comparative advantage is, would feel wasted on it and not inspired to apply. I've heard on the grapevine that these specific roles did not find many great applicants, which I think backs up this point.
The role is mostly positioned as "enabling the existing leadership team" to the extent that it seems like "do all the tasks that we don't like"
Sometimes this is explicitly put in the JD, sometimes it's the subtext. I've read JDs where senior ops people's role was almost literally "enabling the existing leadership team so they can do strategic work".
The issues with this JD are, in my opinion:
- this would not be the comparative advantage of someone qualified to do such a senior role - again, see "skills and attributes" section
- it makes the existing leadership team seem like they're not very attuned to creating roles that are fulfilling, that would retain staff, and therefore convincing them to focus on developing a good organisational culture could be an uphill battle
- people at a certain level of seniority know that they will sometimes know better than other leaders, and will not welcome a position which could minimise their voice
Hiring managers give the impression that they will likely discount the perspectives and skills the new hire could bring
A few common features of senior leadership teams I've observed across many EA orgs are:
- most of their expertise is on technical subject-matter, and not as much about building the org culture and structure to achieve goals on this technical subject-matter. So they would not really speaking the same language as the new senior ops person, and could easily not get the arguments being made
- many are very young and have limited work experience, let alone work experience outside of EA. While we all like to think we are self-aware enough to mitigate this, diversity of experience humbles you; it makes you viscerally aware of what you don't know, and why you should be more open to others and want their help / input even if it makes you feel uncomfortable / threatened
I think these features mean they're less likely to get / listen to my perspective, or value the way I did things in a different sector, so I'd be nervous about applying to them. The irony is I've been encouraged to apply to these organisations by many EAs because my skills do complement leadership teams like these!
One conversation with a hiring manager illustrates this bit. They more or less said they would not want me involved in the biggest strategic decisions within the org because I was not technical. I found they did not understand that many of my skills were directly transferable, and even when I laid this out they were dismissive and tried to move to another topic. It made me concerned they didn't see how they might have blindspots in their decision making which outsiders are often good at picking up. It also signalled they didn't appreciate how my reputation would be tied to the org's success / failure, and that therefore a seat at the table would be commensurate for this risk.
Excessive scepticism towards people who are not 'EA / long-termist enough', or not from orgs in this space
Before I talk about the benefits of hiring people from outside EA, I want to make clear that there are benefits to hiring someone who is well-versed in EA concepts. Knowledge of EA concepts and how to apply them, like the ITN framework or expected value calculations, can inform effective strategic decisions. Being versed in EA / long-termist thinking gives a common language to understand and anticipate other members of their organisation better. But there are costs to seeking people from within EA / long-termism.
Why it can be extra valuable to hire people who have not worked in a recognised EA / long-termist org
One of the main reasons to search for hires 'outside' is simply because the number of EA orgs needing these people outstrips the number of EAs with the right experience; especially if you want them to be proven 'ops people', in which case they almost definitely won't have already worked in EA orgs.
But there are also other benefits to seeking 'ops people' from outside EA. To refer back to the skills and attributes list:
- Excellent stakeholder management skills, and leadership; particularly important as EA orgs acquire more funding and set up more partnerships with non-EA / EA-adjacent organisations. If all you know is building alliances within the EA ecosystem, you'll be very challenged
- Strategic thinking and intuition about what leads to success / failure; long-termist orgs have goals that are harder to benchmark progress against, particularly if they are to do with X-risks or S-risks. So there's a greater risk of investing in things which seem important or sound good but will not be. But if you if you only hire people whose worldview greatly overlaps with yours, you will not have sufficient challenge. This is why the cliché of "fresh eyes" sums up the value of what an outsider can bring so well, and it's why I try to hire people outside my current sector when I can.
- There's a bigger literature on how organisational diversity makes creative / problem-solving teams more effective, if you want to read more about this.
- Leadership and team cultivation / organisational culture; if your leaders have only worked in EA orgs, their experience of org culture and practices will by definition be narrower. I think this narrowness is reinforced by how org leaders seek information; I hear from friends working in EA orgs that they overwhelmingly seek advice from other EA orgs on things like hiring and human resources processes. Sometimes this will be valuable, especially if there is some really good practice in some orgs. But hiring someone with experience from outside EA opens you to a much wider network, more examples of what good / bad / weird looks like, and what many different really good / bad leaders do. So good ops person in a senior role with the ability to influence will bring new ideas which could be really helpful.
- I think the benefits of 'outsiders' to this domain is particularly important because, sadly, there are some poorly kept secrets of EA orgs who have had big cultural problems and leadership that was lacking; leading to reputation harms and worse yet high burnout rates and stress among junior team members.
In summary, more models of the world / how to do things well = good!
However, I've heard of 'card-carrying' EAs described as the 'wildcard' in a final hiring rounds because they had not worked in an EA org before. This leads me to think that if the wildcard is an established EA, then the hiring org could not have been thinking broadly enough about how to attract talent from outside EA: both in the initial casting of the net and then how they evaluate people throughout hiring rounds.
Why it can be extra valuable to hire people who are not signed up to all EA / long-termist ideas
There seems to be a lot of worry about hiring people who 'might not be value-aligned'.
But how do you really get a sense of that? You can ask in an interview what someone thinks about different topics, and how much they converge / diverge from what you think the organisations values are, and hire to maximise alignment and minimise friction. But at what cost? Especially given points I make about how useful it is to have different perspectives.
Here's some reasons you should reevaluate 'value-alignment' requirements:
- how you (dis)agree is often more important than what you (dis)agree on. A 'yes man' and a belligerent nay-sayer will both cause org disfunction, but in different ways. If people convey their (dis)agreement in ways that are open to others, make uncertainties and risks concrete and cultivate a genuine synthesis, you're winning. This is why, hypothetically, you can have someone working on e.g. global health and development, who primarily comes from a feminist worldview, who could be a great team asset.
- an excellent hire could have good reasons for wanting to work in an EA / long-termist org whilst not being 100% behind the long-term mission, but practically speaking this divergence could be an asset to the org. I think a healthy near-term Vs. long-term tension can be really useful because most of our work is in emerging fields where we are still looking to demonstrate proof of concept and value. A hypothetical illustration...
- An improving institutional decision making (IIDM) org with long-termist goals could be very appealing to someone with considerable organisational change knowledge within large bureaucracies.
- Such a potential hire might not be 100% sold on long-termism arguments to do with astronomical waste, but agree that IIDM is important for improving the world in the coming decades. They will likely have a common language with external stakeholders in non-EA orgs, that would make them a great asset for partnership building.
- If employed, this hire could make good arguments for demonstrating proof of concept within the coming 2-5 years to do with e.g. failing fast, winning mroe resources / alliances through near-term success to do more; and convince a team with a more long-term focus who would otherwise be happy doing more theoretical work.
- expecting high convergence in values is somewhat contradictory of EA as a question; and as outlined in the previous section under the "strategic thinking" and "intuition" point, high risks can come about from assuming agreement
However, I've had some interviews which felt like a test of how much EA / long-termist doctrine I was signed up to. I think it would have been more valuable if the purpose was to answer "given your epistemic starting point and how you work and behave with others, could you work well with us and add value?". More openness about any fears / worries on the side of the hiring org is also helpful, in my opinion.
Just to be clear, I do think there is a difference between 'not remotely value-aligned' and 'not 100% convergent on our org values as stated'. I'm advocating EA orgs should be more strategic in how they think about the benefits of convergence / divergence in values and reasoning, and that this will likely mean relaxing the thresholds for what 'EA / long-termist aligned' means.
For EA orgs hiring, particularly org leadership:
- Before starting a hiring round
- Research what good looks like for 'ops roles' like these outside of EA; this could include start-ups, established companies, think tanks, government, etc
- Undertake a gap analysis of the skills, experience and ideas that your organisation is lacking to more strategically think about what someone outside the EA org ecosystem would bring. Build this into your strategy for advertising the role. Key questions:
- what are the specific skills which will make a person a better employee and how much are those skills worth compared to other skills?
- what are my personal strengths and limitations; not just in skills / thinks I dislike, but ways I see the world and behaviours? Who would complement these?
- When it comes to job descriptions (JD):
- Clearly articulate the value you see a senior ops role can bring; particularly based on the existing strengths / gaps within your org. You will attract more people if the JD is about empowering talented people to improve your org based on the gaps you see as well as the blindspots you haven't seen yet
- If you want the role to do basic ops tasks, say so clearly but be aware this will discourage a lot of people
- When it comes to hiring conversations and job interviews:
- Be clear about what you don't know and what you think this person can bring. Be open and engage in two-way listening. A high calibre person will know their worth, and could easily be discouraged by a team where people might not know what they want, might show less self-awareness of their blindspots or might be dismissive or undermining towards another's skills.
- Use alignment questions in the job interview as an opportunity for two-way listening. Aim to come away with food for thought. Be willing to revise your own model of what good organisational alignment and more importantly organisational strategy looks like
- Analyse and benchmark how you're doing.
- Write up a hiring strategy, and put it in front of people in and out of EA orgs for their critique.
- Do a post-mortem on important hiring rounds to learn for next time. Things you should try to measure...:
- who is reading the application?
- who is applying?
- who is falling off at each interview / assessment stage, and why?
- are there any trends in the people who made it to the final rounds, and what do they tell you about your hiring approach?
- Where there's good lessons learned, share them
Funders and board members:
- Read and reflect on the above, and consider encouraging these organisations to integrate this thinking in their hiring processes