The CEO Is O̶u̶t̶ In All about the leadership shakeup at OpenAI

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The CEO Is O̶u̶t̶ In: All about the leadership shakeup at OpenAI

OpenAI abruptly fired and rehired its CEO Sam Altman, capping five days of chaos within the company.

What’s new: On Friday, the OpenAI board of directors — whose membership since has changed — ousted CEO and co-founder Sam Altman from his leadership position and his seat on the board. The board named chief technology officer Mira Murati interim CEO, soon replaced by Twitch co-founder Emmett Shear. Late Tuesday, Altman was reinstated and the board reorganized. 

What happened: The dizzying events leave OpenAI with familiar leadership and a retooled board of directors. The new board, which is expected to expand, is chaired by Salesforce co-CEO Bret Taylor and includes economist Larry Summers and Quora CEO Adam D’Angelo (the sole holdover from the previous lineup). Leaving the board are Altman, co-founder and chief scientist Ilya Sutskever, entrepreneur Tasha McCauley, and AI safety researcher Helen Toner as well as president, co-founder, and former board chair Greg Brockman (who lost his seat in the turmoil, resigned, and returned with Altman).

  • The circumstances surrounding Altman’s ouster remain mysterious. In explaining the decision, the earlier board said only that he had not been “consistently candid.” Chief operating officer Brad Lightcap wrote in an internal memo, “the board's decision was not made in response to malfeasance or anything related to our financial, business, safety, or security/privacy practices. This was a breakdown in communication between Sam and the board.” 
  • Altman learned of his dismissal on Friday in a call that co-founder and chief scientist Ilya Sutskever had scheduled the previous evening. The board briefed Microsoft, which owns 49 percent of OpenAI’s for-profit subsidiary, shortly thereafter, but it didn’t notify other investors. OpenAI’s management team learned that Altman had been fired from the public announcement.
  • By the end of Friday, OpenAI president Greg Brockman had resigned along with three senior researchers and dozens of other staff. On Sunday, the board named Shear interim CEO. More than 90 percent of OpenAI employees  – including Sutskever and Murati – signed an open letter threatening to leave if the board did not resign and reinstate Altman.
  • While Altman was negotiating his return, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella announced that he had hired Altman, Brockman, and the three senior researchers to staff an AI research division under Altman’s leadership. 

Revolving door: OpenAI went through three CEOs within nearly as many days. Here’s who has passed through the revolving door.

  • CEO Sam Altman co-founded OpenAI in 2015, while he was president of startup accelerator YCombinator, and became chief executive in 2019. He reoriented the company from research to products, gaining widespread recognition for the GPT series of large language models and the 2022 launch of ChatGPT. Lately he has invested in and raised money for other ventures including the biometric identity service Worldcoin, fusion-energy reactor builder Helion Energy, Humane’s AI Pin, and a chip company that would compete with Nvidia. 
  • Mira Murati served as interim CEO November 17 through November 19. She joined OpenAI in 2018 after working on AI products at Tesla and Leap Motion. She became OpenAI’s senior vice president of research, product, and partnerships in 2020 and CTO in 2022, leading development of ChatGPT, DALL·E, and other models. She championed the effort to reinstate Altman and Brockman during her stint as interim CEO.
  • Emmett Shear was interim CEO November 19 through November 21. He was part of YCombinator’s initial cohort in 2005, co-founded the company that became Twitch in 2007, and sold it to Amazon for nearly $1 billion in 2014. He departed Twitch in early 2023. During his brief tenure at OpenAI, Shear threatened to resign unless the board provided evidence of Altman’s wrongdoing. Upon Altman’s return, he wrote on X, “I am deeply pleased by this result.”

Why it matters: At a moment when AI is undergoing rapid development and deepening division over the role of regulation, the chaos at OpenAI highlights the importance of strong corporate governance and an experienced board of directors that has a range of relevant experience and strong alignment with the company’s mission. It’s highly unusual for directors to fire a chief executive without arranging an orderly succession, coordinating with key investors, and preparing the market for changes. Chaos at the company opened competitive opportunities for rivals and threatened to destabilize thousands of companies that depend on OpenAI services. Although Altman’s return presumably restores the company’s stability, it will bear lingering questions and greater scrutiny going forward.

We’re thinking: There’s nothing normal about goings on at OpenAI. Nonetheless, as startup guru Eric Ries said, cofounder breakups and sometimes even boardroom coups are part of startup life. They’re unnerving, especially for people who depend on the companies involved (and vice-versa). We wish OpenAI’s employees, who have done a tremendous job of advancing AI and serving hundreds of millions of customers, renewed enthusiasm and focus as they resume their important work.


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