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I[1] wanted to give an update on the Centre for Effective Altruism (CEA)’s search for a new CEO.

We (Claire ZabelMax Dalton, and Michelle Hutchinson) were appointed by the Effective Ventures boards to lead this search and make a recommendation to the boards. The committee is advised by James SnowdenCaitlin Elizondo, and one experienced executive working outside EA. 

We previously announced the search and asked for community input in this post.

Note, we set out searching for an Executive Director, and during the process have changed the role title to CEO because it was more legible to candidates not familiar with CEA or EV. The role scope remains unchanged.

In summary, we received over 400 nominations, reached out to over 150 people, spoke to about 60, and received over 25 applications. We’re still considering around 15 candidates, and are currently more deeply assessing <5 candidates who seem especially promising.


  • Over 400 people were nominated for the role
    • We invited recommendations from CEA staff, stakeholders, and the EA community via the Forum.
    • We selected candidates for outreach according to their profile and experience, the strength of recommendation we received, and (in some cases) our pre-existing knowledge about them.
      • We decided this approach (rather than reaching out to all nominees or having an open call for applications) because
        • Many nominations were fairly speculative (for instance one person nominated over 30 people, many of whom did not have management experience: this was helpful because it generated some useful names we would otherwise not have known about, but it probably would not have been a good use of our/candidates’ time to reach out to all of these people).
        • More generally, we wanted to be careful about our time and applicants’ time.
        • We thought (based on advice from professional recruiters) that a narrower outreach process would be more likely to be attractive to our most promising candidates (who matter disproportionately).
      • Overall our sense from talking to people with experience of this is that this selective, non-public process is fairly standard practice in executive recruitment. I think that the main reason for this is that in executive recruitment your top candidates (who are the most important ones) have a very high opportunity cost for their time, and personalized non-public outreach is a much stronger signal that it will be worth their time engaging in the process.
        • My guess is that some of our top candidates would not have proactively submitted an application, but did engage when we reached out to them.
    • We had a lower bar for reaching out to candidates we were less familiar with (because a small chance that they would be our top candidate justified the effort).
  • In the end, we reached out to over 150 potential candidates
    • We shared a document containing information on CEA and the role, and  invited them to meet a member of the search committee (typically Max).
      • We sometimes asked people to consider booking a call even if they weren’t interested in the role, because we wanted to get their advice on our hiring process.
    • In many cases, we tried to personalize outreach messages somewhat and use our network:
      • When we knew the candidates, this was easy
      • Sometimes we asked for introductions from mutual connections
      • However there were some cases where we didn’t personalize (e.g. if we couldn’t find a good mutual connection).
    • To give a sense of the range of candidates we reached out to, according to our very rough assessment they had:
      • EA context
        • ~50% high (e.g. they’ve been working at an EA org or otherwise have lots of signs of engagement with EA ideas).
        • ~40% medium (e.g. they attended an EAG once or did 80k coaching, but nothing else)
        • ~10% low (very few signs of EA engagement)
      • Management experience
        • ~15% leadership of a large organization (roughly, an organization equal to or larger than CEA’s current size)
        • ~30% leadership of a small org or comparable
        • ~35% senior management experience
        • ~15% some (non-senior) management experience
        • <5% little to no obvious management experience (but some other reason why they seemed promising)
    • We have so far heard back from more than 80% of people reached out to.
    • We deliberately chose to reach out to people who we thought would probably not be interested in the role, but might be. So we were not surprised that a majority of the people we reached out to were not interested. We think that this was the right decision: some of our top candidates were people who we thought would probably not be interested (but who actually were).
  • We (mostly Max) had calls with many of these people: probably significantly more than 50 people in total.
    • Very roughly 60% of these calls were with people who were seriously considering the role, in which case the call focused on getting to know each other a bit better, and then answering any questions or addressing any concerns that they had about the role or the process.
    • The remainder were with people who were not considering the role, but who wanted to give input into the process.
      • Overall, we found these fairly useful: we got a lot of tips on outreach and assessment from people with a lot of executive hiring experience, and we also got some useful feedback from community members.
  • Over 25 people ended up applying.
    • Because we had been selective in who we reached out to, the applicant pool was fairly strong in terms of prior management experience.
    • We tailored assessment around our uncertainties for applicants (in order to make good use of their and our time).
    • Around 20 of these candidates ended up doing a task where they began to develop a strategic vision for CEA (based on additional context that we shared with them).
      • We were aware that different candidates would have different levels of context, and that candidates’ thinking would likely change as they learned more, so we paid less attention to whether we agreed with the specifics of the plan, and more to the reasoning and communication skills displayed in these documents.
      • We shared with them that we were open to a fairly wide range of potential visions for CEA, and gave some guidance on the types of visions we were most open to, and what we were looking for from them. Some candidates proposed fairly radical departures, but around half focused on ideas closer to the status quo.
    • We have so far gathered reference calls for around 15 of these candidates.
      • This was based on advice we had from people with a lot of recruitment experience that reference calls would be a way to get a fair amount of information quickly. These people also gave tips (e.g. for our script) that helped us to make reference calls somewhat more informative.
        • At their best, reference calls can help you to very quickly understand a candidate’s performance in similar past roles. They also help identify uncertainties or concerns that can be evaluated during the process.
        • However, we are also aware that reference calls can be noisy: we tried to do multiple calls where possible, and they were only a part of our evaluation.
      • Overall I (Max) found reference calls really informative, and I’m glad that we did them earlier in the process (rather than at the end, which is more common).
    • A smaller number of candidates did a management trial task, or a structured interview.
  • We’re now engaging more deeply with <5 candidates, doing more in-depth reference checks, and giving them time to talk with stakeholders and develop their visions for CEA. This process is tailored around our uncertainties about these candidates, and these candidates’ uncertainties about the CEO role.
    • We've decided to prioritise clarifying our uncertainties about these candidates in the coming couple of weeks, in part because we think they are most likely to be the right fit and in part because we have limited capacity to engage intensively with more than a handful candidates simultaneously. However, there are around 10 additional candidates who we have not rejected and whose applications are effectively paused
      • In our efforts to eliminate enough candidates to achieve a manageable shortlist of top candidates, we didn’t feel confident ruling these people out, so we've offered them the opportunity to remain under consideration (so far, all have opted to remain a candidate-on-pause)
    • To protect candidate privacy and to avoid locking in our options too much, we’re not currently saying too much about these top candidates or their visions.
    • We’re still fairly unsure about how long it’ll take before we can announce an appointment: if things go well, we hope to make a recommendation to the board by early October, but it might take time for the board to consider their decision and negotiate with the candidate, etc. There might also be some delay between someone agreeing to join and them starting or the decision being announced.


  1. Overall I think that I learned a lot from feedback from people with more experience of executive recruitment. (Though the feedback was sometimes contradictory, and I’m not sure if I acted on the best advice throughout.)
  2. Compared to other projects, I’ve been surprised at how frequently my previous way of thinking about things broke down, and I needed to re-conceptualize what I was doing.
    1. Examples of things I needed to re-conceptualize:
      1. How much to treat this as a standard recruitment funnel versus a highly-customized search for our top candidates.
      2. How much to be “ruling candidates out”, versus “ruling in” the few candidates we were most excited about.
    2. This generally materialized as feeling stuck or unable to make progress within the current paradigm (e.g. feeling like I needed to reject candidates but not being sure who to reject), and then talking to advisors or thinking things through for a while before I found a new way of thinking about things (e.g. “rule people in, not out”) that allowed me/us to make progress.
    3. I’m not sure how avoidable this was, but I expect that if I had done this type of executive search many times in the past I would have found this easier to navigate.
    4. Sometimes we switched between these different paradigms, and I worry that this sometimes resulted in a slightly disjointed process, whereas it would have been better to more consistently pick one approach (e.g. more totally pick an approach where we just reached out to about 3 people from the start and then shaped assessment around them). (But I’m not sure here – I don’t feel confident in any of the more decisive approaches, and maybe we had a decent balance.)
    5. Overall I felt more frequently confused working on this project than I have in most prior pieces of work I’ve done. It felt fairly different from running a standard recruitment round.
  3. Things I wish I’d done differently:
    1. We asked several candidates to do a particular trial task early in the process, but this task didn’t give us as much information as I’d hoped, partly because our candidates tended to have a lot more experience than the people that we’d beta-tested the task with. In the future, I should make sure that trial task beta testers are more similar to the actual applicant pool.
    2. Partly because of getting “conceptually stuck” in some ways, I think that we began outreach to candidates about 2 weeks later than might have been realistically possible (and this matters because a 2 week delay means, in expectation, 2 weeks longer before finding a new CEO for CEA, which I think is important). I think that it would have helped if I’d asked advisors for help here more quickly.
    3. In a couple of cases, I sent emails or requests that were too standardized to some of our top candidates. I think that this made them feel less valued, and more worried that I’d waste their time during the process. I updated somewhat in the direction of personalization and optimizing for the experience of our top candidates based on this feedback.
  4. Things I’m glad we did:
    1. I think that personalized outreach helped us reach people we otherwise wouldn’t have reached.
    2. As mentioned above, I got a lot out of doing reference checks early, and I think our approach to reference checks is getting us much more useful information than the default approach.
    3. I think the process has generally been well organized and project managed.
    4. I think that we were fairly transparent with potential candidates about what the role looked like, including important risks and downsides. For instance, we shared a lot of this in the role description, and I shared more on calls. I think that this allowed people to rule themselves out more quickly which saved time, and it also built trust with potential candidates.
    5. I think it’s good that we have been open to big changes in vision: some of our top candidates want this, and I think this might help us to recruit a much better leader for CEA (and possibly switch to a better strategy).
  5. One thing that has been generally challenging has been how to assess candidates who have very different profiles (in terms of prior management experience, or prior engagement with EA). I think that we’ve been appropriately cognisant of this, and I don’t think there’s anything particular that I’d change here, but I’m also not confident that we handled this well.

You can share anonymous feedback about our process here.

  1. ^

    I drafted this post with some help from Oscar Howie. Other search committee members commented and approved of my posting, but didn’t author the post. Thanks to Oscar Howie, Lizka Vaintrob, Claire Zabel, Michelle Hutchinson, and Amy Labenz for feedback.





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Thanks for sharing this!

At a few points here, you say things like:

  1. You learned a lot from talking to "professional recruiters" or "people with more experience of executive recruitment."
  2. "I’m not sure how avoidable this was, but I expect that if I had done this type of executive search many times in the past I would have found this easier to navigate." 
  3. "Overall I felt more frequently confused working on this project than I have in most prior pieces of work I’ve done. It felt fairly different from running a standard recruitment round."

Given this, I'm led to believe that: a) experienced executive recruiters were not directly involved in the selection process and b) the three of you (Claire, Max, and Michelle) don't have a lot of experience recruiting executive directors (though I know you have substantial experience being executive directors, and I assume this experience helps you identify others who might be well-suited to the role). Is that impression correct? If so, why was the decision made not to involve someone who does have substantial experience doing executive recruitment?

In the interest of candor: I can think of a bunch of reasons why it wouldn't make sense to directly involve an experienced executive recruiter in this process—maybe there aren't too many of these, or they charge $1,000/hour, or they wouldn't be much of a value add, given your knowledge of what being an executive director takes, or they know nothing about EA, etc. But I think EA does tend to do this thing I'll call "delegating hard, important tasks to very competent people who have a deep knowledge of EA, even when those people lack experience in the relevant domain (in this case: recruiting executive directors)." Sometimes it seems totally reasonable to do this, and sometimes it seems less reasonable. So my broader question is: do you think that's what happened here, and if so, do you think this was a reasonable approach?

Again, I really do appreciate your transparency. I raise this question mainly because I think EA differs from other organizations/sectors/social movements in its tendency to prioritize ability and familiarity with EA over domain-specific expertise or formal training in something, so I think it's worth flagging this when it may be occurring, so we can consider whether and when this tendency makes sense.

Context: I’m an advisor to the search committee, not a member so I have some insight but not complete visibility.

My guess is the set of people with significant EA context who have been involved in appointing 3+ leaders of EA and EA-aligned organisations is a very small set of people, many of whom would not have been willing and/or appropriate members of the search committee. I also think Max's description may have been misleading in terms of how much/what kind of experience was brought to bear during this process:

  • Max has previously run the hiring rounds for two executive directors (EA Funds and GWWC). Claire participated in decision-making for both of those decisions. These were smaller, less complex processes, though.
  • Max consulted ~a dozen people with more experience hiring executives.
  • Max met ~weekly with an advisor who had more experience hiring executives.
  • We paid an external consultant to help generate candidates and found it a bit useful, although we think we would have found most of the top candidates without their assistance.
  • In terms of recruitment generally, Max and I have both been involved in dozens of hiring rounds at CEA and the others folks involved also bring significant recruitment experience (which I know a bit less about).

Still, I agree that this is still not the same as having someone who has done this activity at this scale many times actually leading the process.

If you are wondering about whether we should have hired an external firm to run the process/help us run the process, what I’d say is that when we’ve tried to hire professional firms or experts for guidance in high context decision making in the past, it has often been either unhelpful or actively harmful. My personal experience has been that their normal customers have such different desires/incentives that their guidance to us feels wildly off base. HR people, for example, assume we are in an adversarial relationship with our employees and become confused when we want to e.g. share more of certain types of information with them. Similarly, we often don’t seem to be able to get on the same page about valuing integrity or transparency for their own sake, not just the appearance of such things. So, if prior experience is applicable, I personally expect a big headhunting firm would have had some very different ideas about what makes a good CEO and we’d have spent a lot of time trying to close a large inferential gap for a small outcome difference.

All of that said, I think it's possible we should have explored what executive search firms might be able to offer in more depth. While I expect them to be of limited use in terms of candidate generation, and expect some of their guidance to be wildly off target, it's possible they might have brought advice about conducting the recruitment process or about candidate assessment that might have complimented the perspectives the committee members brought to the process. That said, given the degree to which this increases coordination costs, it seems plausible but not obvious it would have been the right call to invest effort into this.

Also pulled from Max’s quick notes:

As Caitlin says context is pretty useful and a lot of my experience trying to hire external people to do stuff has been net-unhelpful (e.g. PR firms).

  • E.g. I could imagine an exec search firm recommending that we edit the job ad to be less transparent, and this putting some of our top candidates off.
  • I’ve been part of hiring rounds that did use an exec search firm, and the exec search firm added little-to-no value (didn’t make much progress, wasted time)


On the more general point - does EA undervalue expertise? - I think that this is directionally true, but complicated for the reasons that Caitlin says. I think it’s a pretty complicated question when and where and how to use external experts vs. people with more context. For instance, I think ex-consultants can often be quite good at quickly gathering context, stakeholder management, and crisis management, but are generally less well-suited to being agile and building longer-term working relationships. (Obviously consultants vary a tonne, these are just patterns that I think I've seen.) I’m probably not handling this question perfectly - I think that with more experience and expertise, I’ll handle it better!

Thanks for your thoughtful response! This is helpful and makes sense.

A few reactions:

  1. It does seem like you/Max/the search committee have a lot of relevant experience, and I appreciate that Max erred on the side of understating this.
  2. I am not shocked that EA organizations often haven't found consulting outside firms to be super helpful, but I am surprised by how bad these experiences seem to have been.

My personal experience has been that their normal customers have such different desires/incentives that their guidance to us feels wildly off base. HR people, for example, assume we are in an adversarial relationship with our employees and become confused when we want to e.g. share more of certain types of information with them. Similarly, we often don’t seem to be able to get on the same page about valuing integrity or transparency for their own sake, not just the appearance of such things.

Three reactions: First, even if a lot of companies function in the way you describe, I assume there are a lot of non-profits that do not have adversarial relationships with their employees/donors? I also find it a bit implausible that EA organizations uniquely value integrity and transparency for their own sake (even if EA organizations do tend to place more of a premium on these things than other non-profits, which again, I think one could reasonably contest). Second, it seems like a good outside consultant could modify its approach in light of CEA saying "hey, we value these things." I would assume that a critical part of the consultant's role is understanding an organization's specific values and goals—since doing so is paramount to, e.g., them being able to find an effective executive—and if they can't do this effectively, then presumably they're pretty bad at their jobs. Maybe I have too much faith in the free market, but I assume that if these external firms were charging a ton of money to be useless, organizations would stop relying on their services. And third, it seems possible for an external firm to a) not totally understand the importance of things like integrity and transparency to EA organizations but b) still be able to say what traits are important in an executive (in general), and help vet potential candidates (which it sounds like you maybe agree with). 

       3. A broader (more speculative) takeaway: my sense from your response is that EA organizations have, by and large, not figured out how to work effectively with outside consultants/firms. One might conclude that such efforts are doomed to fail because (some more nuanced version of) "they don't get us." But an alternate conclusion one might draw is that it's hard to figure out how to work well with outside actors, and so there's a learning curve that needs to be climbed here, but EA organizations need to find a way to climb this learning curve, because a) a tiny fraction of the talented/knowledgeable/experienced people in the world are involved in EA b) the EA community has important blind spots. So even if we expect that consulting an outside firm on any given project isn't going to be super helpful to achieving the goals of that project (e.g., hiring a CEO), I'm still left thinking that EA organizations should err on the side of doing this, because it's important to figure out how to do this well, and that requires practice. 

A hard thing here: For any project where “learn to work with external partners and train them to work with us” might be a good goal, there is usually a clear, higher priority and time-sensitive outcome in play, like “Make a hire for this role.” The time trade-offs are real, so the lower-priority goal doesn’t happen.

This may be the wrong long-term play. I am inclined to agree with you that more successful external partnerships would be valuable, but I see why orgs take the more obvious win in the short-term.

Thanks for sharing this — it feels like you really didn't "have to" in some sense, but I appreciated some of the insight into how the process is going and reading your learnings!

Max - thanks very much for sharing this comprehensive, candid, and transparent overview of the process. It all sounds very reasonable, reflective, and effective. 

Just wanted to express my appreciation to you and the other members of the search team. 

(PS I wish the search for university administrators was this open and honest!)

Would you be willing to describe your approach to reference checks to get more useful information? Questions you ask, etc.

Thank you, this is enlightening and helps understand the thinking process when you have been on the other side of the counter as an applicant. So you got 35% of people having experience as senior managers. Is that a confirmation that EA lacks people with experience as senior managers? At EA Sweden we are targeting mid-career professionals for this reason among others, so would be nice to see confirmed or infirmed. 

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