Some notes on common challenges building EA orgs

(Follow-up to: Want advice on management/​organization-building?)

After posting that offer, I’ve chatted with a few people at different orgs (though still have bandwidth for more if other folks are interested, as I find them pretty fun!) and started to notice some trends in what kinds of management problems different orgs face. These are all low-confidence—I’d like to validate them against a broader set of orgs—but I thought I’d write them up to see if they resonate with people.


Many orgs skew extremely junior

The EA community skews very young, and highly engaged EAs (like those working at orgs) skew even younger. Anecdotally, I was the same age or older than almost everyone I talked to, many of whom were the most experienced person in their org. By comparison, at Wave almost the entire prod/​eng leadership team is my age or older. (Note that this seems to be less true in the most established/​large/​high-status orgs, e.g. Open Phil.)

This isn’t a disaster, especially since the best of the junior people are very talented, but it does lead to a set of typical problems:

  • having to think through how to do everything from first principles rather than copy what’s worked from elsewhere

  • managers needing to spend a fair amount of time providing basic “how to be a functioning employee” support to junior hires

  • managers not providing that support and the junior hires ending up being less effective, or growing less quickly, than they would at an org that could provide them more support

(At Wave, we’ve largely avoided hiring people with <2 years of work experience onto the prod/​eng team for this reason. Of course, that’s easier for us than for many EA orgs, so I’m not suggesting this as a general solution.)

It also leads to two specific subproblems:

Many managers are first-time managers

Again, this isn’t a disaster, since many of these first-time managers are very smart, hardworking and kind. But, first-time managers have a few patterns of mistakes they tend to make, mostly related to “seeing around corners” or making decisions whose consequences play out on a long time horizon (understandably, since they often haven’t worked as a manager for long enough to have seen long-time-horizon decisions play out!). This is things like:

  • Providing enough coaching and career growth for their team

  • Giving feedback that’s difficult to give

  • Making sure their reports are happy in their roles and not burning out

The last point seems especially underrated in EA, I suspect because people are unusually focused on “doing what’s optimal, not what’s fun.” That’s a good idea to a large extent, but even for many people who are largely motivated by impact, they can be massively more or less productive depending on how much their day-to-day work resonates with them. But I suspect many EAs, like me, are reluctant to admit that this applies to us too and we’re not purely impact-maximizing robots.

Almost all managers-of-managers are first-timers

Going from managing individual contributors to managing managers is a fairly different skillset in many ways. Most people in EA orgs that are managing managers seem to be “career EAs” for whom it’s their first manager-of-managers role. As above, new managers of managers tend to make some predictable mistakes, e.g.:

  • Not planning far enough ahead for what hires they’ll need to make to support their org’s growth

  • Hiring/​promoting the wrong people into management roles (having become a good manager doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll be good at coaching/​evaluating other managers who fail in different ways than you did!)

  • Not noticing team dysfunction, either due to not having systems in place (e.g. skip-level 1:1s) or not knowing that something is a red flag

Many leaders are isolated

Compared to the for-profit world, EA seems to have a much smaller proportion of people working at large organizations, and a larger proportion working at small/​mid-sized orgs. This means that many managers /​ managers-of-managers are the only person in their org with that job, and don’t have other peers they can rely on for support, sanity checking or talking through a difficult decision.

Many leaders are reluctant managers

This is a problem in the for-profit world as well—the classic example is promoting your best engineer into management despite the fact that they have no people skills. In EA, it’s often more like promoting your best philosopher, but the results are similar.

This sometimes works well, if the person being promoted is motivated to work hard at becoming a great manager /​ organization-builder, but if they’re not, it often ends up with them burning out, and their team having culture or execution problems.

We don’t know how to structure teams

In engineering management, the area I’m most familiar with, there’s a set of fairly well-known ways to structure organizations and teams to mitigate the “reluctant manager” problem—for example, splitting up engineering leadership between one person who focuses people management and one who focuses on technical decision-making and strategy.

Unfortunately, most EA teams aren’t doing very much software engineering; instead they’re doing activities like research or grantmaking where there are fewer large orgs whose example we can learn from. As a result, we have less of a well-developed idea of what these teams should look like, and often end up putting all the leadership responsibility on one person, who either drops the ball on part of it or ends up stretched very thin.

Some ideas for improvement

  • I’m thinking about creating an “EA managers” slack similar to the Operations one, where people can get advice/​support from managers in other orgs. Let me know if you’re interested in this!

  • I think the advising I’ve done so far has been pretty helpful to people. I’m happy to do more of this, and I also suspect that non-EA management/​leadership coaches would be valuable for people as well; I don’t feel like the fact that I’m familiar with the EA community comes up that much.

  • I suspect more orgs/​teams could use a “COO”-type figure who offloads people-management responsibilities from the person who’s responsible for vision/​strategy/​fundraising/​etc. This is a difficult role to hire for, but with the right pairing, it can make the team dramatically more effective.

I’m curious whether leaders at other EA orgs resonate with these observations, have other patterns to add that they’ve noticed, or have ideas about potential mitigations!