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I spoke with some people who worked or served on the board at organizations that had a leadership transition after things went seriously wrong. In some cases the organizations were EA-affiliated, in other cases only tangentially related to the EA space.

This is an informal collection of advice the ~eight people I spoke with have for staff or board members who might find themselves in a similar position. I bucketed this advice into a few categories below. Some are direct quotes and others are paraphrases of what they said. All spelling is Americanized for anonymity.

I’m sharing it here not because I think it’s an exhaustive accounting of all types of potential leadership issues (it’s not) or because I think any of this is unique to or particularly prevalent in or around EA (I don’t). But I hope that it’s helpful to any readers who may someday be in a position like this. Of course, much of this will be the wrong advice if you’re dealing with a problem that’s more like miscommunication or differences of strategy than outright corruption or other unethical behavior.

Written policies

  • “Annual self-review [by the CEO] to the board, performance reviews of CEO's reports + feedback for the CEO shared with the board, official routinized channel for making major complaints to the board. More informally, I feel like having more of a ‘we do things by the book’ / ‘we do all the normal tech company best practices for management’ goes a long way. Also being formal and quite cautious about conflicts of interest.”
  • Maybe there should be a policy that if you have a problem with your manager or with org leadership, here’s this alternate person you go to (HR, external HR consultant, board).
  • One person from an org where the leader was treating staff badly said they had whistleblowing policies on the books, but it was hard to use them against the leader because the leader had control of the process.
  • Maybe policies would have helped, if they’d had more teeth. Like the board must do x and y substantive things, here are minimum standards for what that will look like, this kind of report would need to be reviewed. But they had some of that and it didn’t help.
  • “If you are cofounding an organization, have an agreement about what happens if you have irreconcilable disagreements with your cofounders. Every single startup advice book tells you to do this, and nobody does it because they think they are special, but you aren't special. Even if your cofounder is your best friend and you are perfectly value-aligned, you should still have an agreement about handling irreconcilable disagreements.”

Role of board / advice for board

  • Prioritize fixing culture proactively. When you can see the organization fracturing or employees are saying the culture is bad, board members should take it seriously. Not sure what kind of interventions would be best, maybe mediation between employees who aren't getting along.
  • Having a good policy about how staff are treated is only useful if you carry it out. It's useless if nobody actually investigates problems.
  • At one org, the leader arranged things so important decisions were made in informal discussions before going to the actual board. The board rubber-stamped things, wasn’t providing independent oversight. It was worse because some board members were staff.
  • Where some board members are uninvolved, the leader doesn’t even need to hide things from them — they just won’t notice.
  • At one org, multiple staff members thought the board could have prevented the problem if they’d run a proper hiring round for the leader earlier rather than making hasty internal appointments.
  • “Have a board that's actually capable of doing stuff, and board members who are willing to burn bridges in order to get the right CEO in place.”
  • It’s important to have capable boards. Some of what they’ve seen go wrong involved incompetent board members. “I think we should give a lot less weight to COI considerations when appointing board members, and more weight to actual skills.”
  • “I think it's quite important to have one person who is point person on the issue. Preferably they should have experience with firing people and working with lawyers.”
  • “Have a good lawyer on retainer that is "the board's lawyer" and not in the CEO's reporting line — good but I'm not sure it's always cost-justified.”
  • “Probably you should actively be checking in with the leader/giving them performance reviews etc. If you hear mild bad things, then it’s especially important to begin, including building up a paper trail.” [Note from Julia that this is a common recommendation in general for any leader, not only when you think leadership may be corrupt.]
  • “Be aware of things that will make it harder to get rid of the leader, and try to mitigate them.
    • Things like:
      • They have dirt on you
      • They’re in the UK (or other places with restrictive labor laws, generally Europe I think)
    • Possible mitigations:
      • Be more careful/circumspect with people, even if you initially trust them, so that they have less dirt on you.
      • If you think you might need to fire someone, it’s especially important to begin doing management check-ins, performance reviews, and documenting everything.
      • Get legal advice early.”
  • “It’s annoying to do all of the above, but it’s much more annoying to end up in a situation where you have to fire them but you’re badly prepared.”
  • “Be especially careful of people with dark triad traits, probably just get rid of them as soon as possible.”
  • “Be really cautious about people who give off manipulative/insincere/Machiavellian vibes. These people can be incredibly destructive.”
  • Survey staff (anonymously, with results going straight to the board)
  • When you're a board member you get info mostly from the ED, and it can be hard to figure out what's actually going on. Don't be afraid to investigate when you get tidbits that don't match your picture.
  • Try to build trusting relationships with a range of key staff — this makes it more likely they’ll raise issues to you.
  • “Probably trust your gut more when things seem to be going wrong.”

Advice for staff

  • “Talk to each other: other people might have similar concerns. Build friendships with your colleagues in order to build the trust that you might need to do this.”
  • “Given the scary situation you're in, it's probably unusually hard to figure out what's really going on. Unfortunately, it's especially important to be accurate if your claims are going to form the basis of important, difficult decisions.”
  • "If you find yourself seeming to be in a very improbable situation, it's likely that if you're not in the situation you think you're in (at least not exactly, but maybe not at all).
  • At one org, the leader had subtle control of internal information flow. The leader arranged things so they controlled who talked to whom in what context. Key staff had grievances or concerns about the leader, but didn’t realize for a long time other people also had concerns. The leader prevented that conversation from happening for a long time.
    • The person heard of another org where staff held a meeting to collect feedback for a project leader without that leader present. Maybe this would have helped
  • “Talk to other people you trust about your concerns, find a board member you trust, tell them your concerns. If you can find multiple people who feel the way you do, I think your odds of success with the board are better.”
  • “Truthful gossip: toxic leaders often try to control the flow of information, and gossip networks can fix that. The EA community should have stronger norms that are in favor of informal gossip networks that 
    • 1) are very careful to convey information accurately (avoiding telephone game effects) and 
    • 2) are focused on information relevant to assessing whom to trust (rather than e.g. people's private love life or whatever).”
  • “I had this very specific feeling during [time period] of feeling kind of crazy, gaslit, thinking that arguments started and stopped making sense depending on who I was talking to. I think that’s a sign that something really bad is going on. I’m not sure how to communicate the feeling, but I think that I should have acted sooner/more strongly based on this. It’s a sign of manipulative psychological stuff/pressure.”
  • Advice for getting more clarity:
    • “Write down exactly what you think has happened, as clearly and explicitly as possible (initially for your own understanding).
    • Figure out who you can work with to understand what is going on — ideally someone familiar with the situation, keen to do the right thing about it, and unlikely to use anything you share for other purposes. This may mean managing a tradeoff between getting help and avoiding harmful information leaks.
    • Write down possible ways the situation could evolve. 
    • Write down what you want to happen.
    • Write down what you expect the chain of effects of your planned actions to be.”
  • “Talk to people not in EA/friends: they probably have more perspective.”
    • “(Especially if you’re young) talk to older people - parents, family friends etc.”
  • “It's probably really hard to turn this into useful advice and you should beware the unilateralist's curse etc. But most EA organizations don't have any assets apart from their staff. If the staff decide to leave and set up a new organization, they just… can?”
  • “It can feel kind of weird or uncooperative to say “I’m quitting unless the leader leaves.” But if that’s your plan, it’s totally fine to tell the board that it’s your plan: you’re just reporting your conditional plan. (I did this, I’m glad I did it, probably I should have decided on this conditional plan sooner.)”
  • There’s a coordination problem. The first person takes the biggest risk if they say “I will quit if X happens.” But that makes it easier for more people to join together.
  • “Be more willing to quit (and maybe start something similar-but-new, or maybe just go and do something else useful)”
    • “You could all just leave and start your own thing.”
    • “Also maybe it will really hurt the org [if you quit] but you need to stay sane and well (both for impact and because you matter).”
  • “If you think something's going severely wrong where you don't really have much of a personal stake (i.e. your concern isn't something you're personally strongly affected by), it's probably a good idea to allocate substantial time (like e.g. a month of your work time) into figuring this out and possibly depose someone."

More notes

  • Cultural risk factors one person noted: the org had some characteristics of a high-control group. You felt you were in this very small vanguard of people who really cared about impact, you felt distant from the rest of the world. A lot of young people with little savings, their income and friendships were all bound up in this group, it was scary to think about leaving or about what if the org explodes. The person thinks that’s less of a problem with most EA orgs now than in that case.
  • “Self-deception is much more common than deliberate lying (at least among people who generally see themselves as altruistic). Even people professing crazy-seeming beliefs usually really do believe them. I think this will apply a lot to people concerned about AI orgs.”
  • A person in leadership is probably really smart and capable. If they want to hide something, they’re probably good at that. 
  • “The things other people find concerning about the situation might not be the same as what you find concerning.”
  • “I’m naturally a “peacemaker” - I want everyone to get along, to solve problems, want us to all be on the same side. I think that maybe lots of EAs are like this, and I think they’re possibly particularly easy to manipulate, and particularly easy to get stuck in trying to make things work.”
  • “A problem that I don't have a solution to is that there often aren't great alternatives [to the current leader]. . . . maybe the solution here is that CEA needs some leadership development program or something” [note from Julia: someone wondered if the reference to CEA was accidentally identifying where the speaker worked, but my understanding is this was a general reference to a service the speaker thought CEA could offer.]
  • “In tense situations, it's often hard to tell the difference between:
    • people who are right,
    • people acting in good faith who are mistaken,
    • people who truly believe in what they're doing but have deluded themselves, and
    • people who are lying about what they believe.”
  • One person saw an example of an org where one staff member accused the leader of being a toxic/dangerous personality, but couldn’t get the support of board or other staff on this claim. This person thought it was correct to keep the leader.
  • One person recommended this writeup on malevolent actors. “Of course the scope is very different, but I think it's the same type of problem — trying to seize power for one's gain.”
  • One person recommended Robert Sutton’s work such as Good Boss, Bad Boss.
Comments8
Sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 1:53 PM

Thanks for the write-up, Julia. I'll say that this dovetails with my experience working in the non-EA world, including in organizations where things went really, really bad.

My main recommendation is that, even if it is hard, staff stand up for themselves and their colleagues, and to push back against bad bosses - something that is necessary even if not sufficient. This goes double for those of us who are senior staff:

(1) You are harder to replace and your opinion carries more weight
(2) You have more working experience, and unlike your more junior colleagues, you know that what's happening isn't normal and isn't acceptable - something that isn't necessary obvious for someone for whom this is their first job our of university.
(3) You may be more financially secure, but this depends (e.g. new mortgages and kids, or being on a work visa make things harder).
(4) Your silence is tacit acceptance.

I want to go a step further, and suggest that it is morally valuable to put yourself in positions where it is easier to stand up for yourself and others. One of the most legible ways is to keep savings high and expenses low*, so you can afford to get fired.

 

*Although going too low can have a self-abnegating effect in some people that makes things worse, so be careful with this. 

Thanks for doing this project and sharing all this!

One thought I had is that a lot of the advice here is about ways to check or restrain leadership, and this seems pretty valuable for helping in situations where leadership fails dramatically. But I wonder how reliant this is on the fact that we are selecting on cases where leadership failed. Sometimes the board will fail dramatically, or staff will fail dramatically, and in those cases advice which sort of boils down to 'strengthen staff and board' might be counterproductive. 

This is a good point – I've (anecdotally) seen one organization "go off the rails" because of a staff member who was behaving unethically but the CEO didn't feel like they had a mandate to just fire them without going through a bunch of formal process.

I guess it's by definition hard to precisely describe when one should deviate from a standard process; perhaps "get feedback from a bunch of experts" is the best advice you could give a CEO in such a situation. 

I realize I am saying 'someone should', but it might be interesting to go through this list point-by-point in retrospective and see how it applied to the OpenAI situation.

When you are a start-up non-profit, it can be hard to find competent people outside your social circle, which is why I created the EA Good Governance Project to make life easier for people.

I think it's important:

  1. To put in place good practices (e.g. board meeting without the CEO regularly) BEFORE they are needed.
  2. For FUNDERS to ask questions about effective governance and bear responsibility when they get it wrong.

"“If you are cofounding an organization, have an agreement about what happens if you have irreconcilable disagreements with your cofounders. Every single startup advice book tells you to do this, and nobody does it because they think they are special, but you aren't special. Even if your cofounder is your best friend and you are perfectly value-aligned, you should still have an agreement about handling irreconcilable disagreements.”"
 

Coming from a legal background, this is the source of so much frustration. If you're best friends you need the agreement even more, because it allows the friendship to survive a major disagreement by having procedures. Not having an agreement like this turns a multi-hour mediation session into a multi-year court battle.

If your friend baulks at making such an agreement, it doesn't bode well for handling other uncomfortable conversations. 

Concerning the rest of the post, I've been fairly flabbergasted how many orgs with so much funding have almost no standardised internal policies and procedures. Hire a lawyer for a few weeks guys. It's much less expensive than a court case, where you'll be needing them for years.

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