So you want to do operations - which skills do you need?


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Eirin M. Evjen, Exec. Dir. EA Norway
Jørgen R. Ljønes, Ass. Exec. Dir. EA Norway

This is the first post in a series on the talent constraint for operations roles experienced by the EA movement and associated organisations as the community grows. The further posts in the series are:

  • [Will be updated as they are published]

Why are we writing this post?

There’s a current discussion on what talent gaps/constraints actually entail, and how we as a community can best overcome the bottlenecks to ensure progress. See parts of the discussion here and here. Although a lot of the confusion around talent gaps have been somewhat clarified, it is still unclear exactly what it entails for those of us who are trying to fill these gaps. A lot of EAs, including local and national groups such as EA Norway, are eager to help fill the different talent gaps in the community. Some of the most sought-after skills, according to 80,000 hours’ (80k) talent gap survey in 2018, has to do with operations in an organisation. By “operations” we mean people at organisations and institutions that enable other employees to focus on core tasks and maximise productivity. This entails financial systems, project management, ensuring a productive office, assisting executive roles, organising internal events, hiring and human relations (HR), as well as communications, fundraising and general management (80k, 2018). Such roles are often abbreviated to “ops”, and which of these responsibilities an ops person has varies a lot from one organisation to another.

What is this post about and who should read it?

This post is about what relevant skills are needed to succeed in an operations role, which of these skills are innate and which are acquirable. It is a summary of what we have learned so far, and an invitation to discuss these questions further. We have gathered information from 80k’s recent forum posts and podcast episodes, discussed with relevant people in the EA community, and surveyed a few people with ops roles. This series of posts is relevant for people who are in charge of or helping out hiring for operations roles, people interested in operations roles, groups similar to ours, and people in the community who are interested in these questions. We are very eager to receive feedback, additional resources, and any thoughts on this topic.

What skills are needed, and which of them can be taught

Doing operations well is hard, and part of the reason there still is a deficit of operations talent in EA orgs is that the list of required skills for operations people is long. We believe it is important to have a better understanding of these skills if we want to help recruiting people who have them. A fundamental question we found is whether the most important skills are mainly innate, or if they can be acquired through training. This question is important because it influences the decision of whether one should try to find people who already are good at operations, or train good candidates to become good operations employees.

80k on skills needed in operations roles

According to their article on “Why operations management is one of the biggest bottlenecks in effective altruism”, 80k provides a list of skills that are needed in operations roles based on interviews with successful operations staff. These are:

  • having an optimisation mindset,
  • being able to create and think in systems,
  • having an aesthetic pleasure in systems working smoothly,
  • being able to plan a task, project and larger event,
  • prioritising between a great amount of tasks,
  • being able to stay calm,
  • having great communications skills,
  • being able to learn quickly,
  • having high attention to detail,
  • being organised and reliable, and
  • having a good fit with effective altruism.

These skills are associated with operations in general, and there are other types of skills that are required in specific positions at HR, legal, or finance.

80k argue that many people don’t realise they are a good fit for operations, and that many might have a comparative advantage of pursuing such roles even without a background in operations. This sentiment is echoed by 80k’s podcasts with Tanya Singh, administrator at Future of Humanity Institute, and Tara Mac Aulay, former CEO (chief executive officer) and COO (chief operations officer) of CEA (centre for effective altruism). Therefore, it seems like one could have a lot of the skills needed, without direct experience in operations roles.

This might be because a lot of the skills mentioned are more generally applicable, and might also be innate, suggesting one might have the necessary skills without having experience from an operations role. Especially for a junior role, Singh argued that having certain traits was sufficient, such as having a bias towards action, being excited about learning new things,and having a drive to want to improve things and put scalable systems and solutions in place. Mac Aulay argues that a deeper problem-solving skillset, creativity, initiative, and good working memory are skills that a good ops person needs to have. The fact that 80k and the two podcast guests list a lot of skills needed for such positions, while simultaneously saying that some “just have it”, left us with unanswered questions about which skills are innate, and which is it possible to acquire through training.

Survey of operations people in EA-organisations

To better understand the nature of these skills, we ran a short survey of people with ops roles in different EA-organisations. Some of the questions were related to the respondents’ perception of their own skills, while others were about if they were to hire someone for an operations role. As has become apparent from 80k, there is a difference between junior and senior roles in operations, and we therefore asked for both roles when asking about hiring to make this distinction clear.

In the junior positions, the respondents said they would look for candidates who has attention to detail, are self-motivated and enthusiastic, are organised and conscientious, and have general mental abilities. In addition, they mentioned grit, taking initiative and communicating well. One respondent mentioned evidence of some experience, for example voluntary projects and internships.

In the senior positions, the respondents emphasised more object-level skills such as accounting, project management, and HR, as well as strategic thinking. In addition to the skills needed in the junior positions, the respondents sought after candidates with good judgement, being able to manage multiple complex projects, having managerial and leadership skills, and even better communication skills. Furthermore, having some form of relevant experience was mentioned by multiple respondents. One respondent would look for candidates with 6+ years experience with complex projects for senior roles. The same respondent also mentioned evidence of having a concrete impact in previous roles. Others were less specific and looked for experience with legal issues, HR, finance, leadership, and project management.

We asked our respondents to think of the talent and skills that made them eligible for their operations roles, and rate on a scale from one to five to what degree these are innate or acquirable. On the scale, 1 represented totally or mostly innate, while 5 was totally or mostly teachable. The results were that three of the respondents chose 3, one chose 2 and the final one chose 4. This means that the respondents think the relevant talent and skills they possess are about half and half innate and acquired. This result is maybe not that surprising, but it makes us update away from the more extreme positions that a strong majority of the important skills for an operations role is either innate or acquired.

We then asked them to list their innate talents and acquired skills. You can see the full list of skills mentioned in the appendix. In terms of innate talents, three mentioned general mental ability or intelligence. One mentioned understanding and not being discouraged by complex issues and systems. Another two emphasised motivation to do the work, and grit/tenacity when dealing with the more difficult or tedious tasks. Lastly, one respondent mentioned an interest in doing ops type of work, and finding such work rewarding. The skills listed by the respondents are similar to 80k’s findings. An addition to their results is the notion of grit, tenacity, and motivation.

There are two key points regarding the list of innate talents and skills. First of all, the list contains many varied answers, a minority of which are mentioned by multiple respondents. We think this suggests that different operations roles require different types of skills. For example, being responsible for financial systems might require being able to understand complex systems than doing more project management tasks. Secondly, it is important to note that the skills mentioned in this list aren’t necessarily completely innate, but that at least a substantial part of them are.

Regarding the respondents’ self-reported acquired skills, all five respondents mentioned management, doing tasks or being productive. Two mentioned attention to detail and being able to zoom out and see the bigger picture. One of the respondents who mentioned attention to detail as a key skill explained that this can be innate for many people, but it wasn’t for them. Other skills mentioned twice were being able to prioritise and being good at communicating. Lastly, there is a list of skills that were mentioned once:

  • being calm under pressure,
  • having good “operations” judgement,
  • being reliable,
  • having creative problem solving skills and being able to identify bottlenecks,
  • taking joy in solving operational problems,
  • having project management skills,
  • being able to effectively delegate,
  • and having knowledge of employment laws, how to research, and financial tracking.

These findings are also similar to 80ks results from their survey. Additions are having good “operations” judgement, having creative problem solving skills, and being able to delegate, though these are mentioned by Mac Aulay and Singh. There are other additions as well, but they are mainly about concrete tasks that vary between different operations roles, such as employment laws. As with the answers to which skills are innate, the list of acquired skills is also varied, where few skills are listed multiple times. It is also interesting that taking joy in solving operational problems is mentioned in both categories - meaning that it is both viewed as largely innate and largely acquirable. Again, we think this has to do with the variance in operations tasks, and the fact that the respondents likely do not view each skill as completely innate or completely acquirable.

Remaining questions

Researching and writing this post has been a very valuable experience for us, and we hope others who are interested in narrowing the talent gap of operations roles in EA organisations will benefit from reading this as well. Still, there are many unanswered questions, and we hope that the discussion on talent gaps and on what the best course of action is will continue. We are especially interested in answering the following questions:

  • How to best test if you have the necessary innate traits?
  • How to test to what extent you have the acquirable skills?
  • What are the best ways of acquiring new skills valuable for operations roles?
  • What should promising candidates do to signal their fit and experience to potential employers to help smooth out the costly recruitment process?
  • Given the answers to the questions above, what can local and national groups do to find and train potential candidates and help in the recruitment process?

As there are multiple facets to this topic, and remaining questions we would like to explore, we want to continue this series with further posts that try to answer the questions above. We think there are opportunities for EA organisations and local/national group to work more closely together to find how we best can reduce the talent constraints in the community, and think discussing and answering the questions above are ways to explore these opportunities. We welcome a continued discussion and feedback in the comment section below and in the posts to come.


Appendix - List of skills the respondents of our survey viewed as innate or acquired

Innate:

  • general mental ability/intelligence,
  • understanding of and not being discouraged by complex issues and systems,
  • motivation to do the work,
  • grit/tenacity when dealing with difficult and tedious tasks, and
  • Interest in doing ops type of work and finding such work rewarding.

Acquired:

  • managing and doing tasks/being productive,
  • attention to detail
  • being able to zoom out and see the bigger picture
  • being able to prioritise between different tasks and projects,
  • being good at communicating,
  • being calm under pressure,
  • having good “operations” judgement,
  • being reliable,
  • having creative problem solving skills and being able to identify bottlenecks,
  • taking joy in solving operational problems,
  • having project management skills,
  • being able to effectively delegate,
  • and having knowledge of employment laws, how to research, and financial tracking.