While I was up to my armpits inside a turkey’s cavity, lovingly rubbing butter and herbs underneath its skin, OpenAI fell apart—and then put itself together again…all before my turkey was smoked and served.
The company saw the removal, replacement, and reinstatement of its superstar CEO, Sam Altman, and we sat around watching it as if it were live reality TV. It also saw the removal and replacement of most of its board of directors.
As all of this was happening, nearly every employee threatened to quit, there were two interim CEOs named—not at the same time but consecutively, and Microsoft set up a new AI arm of its own for Altman to lead.
All the while, we faced the possibility that ChatGPT would implode overnight.
And, as of this writing, two weeks later, we still don’t know why.
More than a few people have noted that all but one of the board members who were removed were women—and they’ve been replaced with two white men. The optics aren’t great here, and the implications are yet to be seen, but we’re here to discuss the executive communications piece of it all.
Where were the experts? Not in the room! That’s where they were!
Don’t Leave Room for Interpretation
Sam Altman is back in place as the CEO at OpenAI, and we all sat and watched it, completely enraptured by all of the drama. It felt like the episode in The Morning Show where they oust…oh, shoot. If you haven’t watched the latest season, I won’t ruin it for you. But the Sam Altman firing and re-hiring felt very much like fiction.
The announcement was abrupt and lacked detail, which, of course, sparked rumors and speculation. It’s pretty easy to sit here and armchair quarterback how it all went down, but this is a classic example of how not to handle communication around any executive transition.
Rule #1: Don’t leave room for interpretation. It leads to uncertainty and mistrust, both internally and externally
Then, just as suddenly, Altman was reinstated, which raised questions about the decision-making process and how involved Microsoft was in these changes. Again, with the speculation, we were left wondering if there was a power struggle or differences in vision, especially because of the new AI arm at Microsoft—and how quickly they announced that Altman would join their team before he was reinstated at OpenAI.
Rule #2: Be transparent. You don’t want to leave anyone guessing. By nature, humans guess things are much worse than they usually are. Don’t give people the chance to catastrophize the situation.
Communicate the Transition Plan
But it wasn’t just about customers and the general public. The reaction of employees was telling. The majority of employees (93%!) threatened to quit. As a business owner, that reaction would be good for my ego. Still, it also indicates there is some work to do internally with culture and ensuring that should something happen where the CEO wouldn’t come back, the business would continue to run without a mass exodus.
Rule #3: Ensure that any transition plan works for the majority of the employees—and that it’s communicated consistently. Lots of things can happen to an executive: sudden death, a life-threatening illness, having to care for an ill family member, an accident, or even winning the lottery. The business should be ready for an emergency transition that employees understand and are on board with. This is where communicators can add a lot of value. Keep transition plans top-of-mind.
DEI Should Be a Priority
And let’s not ignore the diversity issues. The optics of replacing most of the board, who were women, with white men raises serious questions about diversity and inclusion within the organization. I know they’ve said that the new board members have more tech experience than those who were replaced, and that may be the case, but plenty of women and people of color have tech expertise.
Rule #4: DEI has to be a top consideration in the transition of a business leader. A communicator also ensures that the messaging isn’t tone-deaf and that social priorities are considered when transitions are made—even if they’re done seemingly overnight, as with Altman.
Consistent Executive Communications
I mentioned earlier that all of this went down a couple of weeks ago, and we still don’t really know why. There was mention of the board thinking Altman wasn’t being transparent, and they didn’t like the company’s direction. But was that because the previous board started with them when they were a nonprofit and didn’t like its growth into a profit-based company? Is it because he was withholding information? Or because there was a power play? We still don’t know, so we’re left to continue to speculate.
Rule #5: Consistent and ongoing executive communications is key. Though Altman wrote a blog post addressing his return, he didn’t address what the heck happened and why these changes were made. During an executive transition, regular updates must occur until things are stable. This helps to maintain trust and prevent the rumor mill from spinning out of control. The gaps in the communication from OpenAi have only fueled more speculation.
Employees Are the First Audience
Though the employees at OpenAI are happy with the final outcome, should you communicate a leader’s transition where there won’t be a coming home, internal communication is as important—if not more—as external.
Rule #6: Rule three spoke to ensuring employees understand a transition plan even before it happens. The same goes for consistent executive communications. In some cases, change management must be applied to help employees navigate the transition. A good communicator will ensure employees feel heard, valued, and informed for at least a year after the transition.
Be Ready for the Media
I’m positive that no one at OpenAI considered what would happen in the media when this news was announced. My sense is it was a knee-jerk decision, so there wasn’t a lot of strategic thought that went into it. An experienced communicator could sit in board meetings without participating and provide insight into how the media could react to news of an executive departing the company. This goes for stock price considerations, as well.
Rule #7: Prepare for the media onslaught. Even if the transition isn’t high-profile, trade media could run with a story if the executive is well-known within the industry. A robust media plan is essential, including prepared statements, FAQs, and media briefings. This ensures that the company’s narrative doesn’t get lost in media speculation, which goes along with transparency, so no one speculates. But it’s worse when the media has to do it.
Executive Communications Should Be Authentic
The moral of the story is to be honest and authentic. We talk about authenticity A LOT around these parts. I have a company named Spin Sucks because of how much I believe in ethics, authenticity, transparency, and honesty. It’s how we should all live our lives—professionally and personally.
So, the final rule, rule #8, is to be honest and authentic. Always. This is how you will build trust, which is incredibly important for achieving your vision, but also in times of crisis or when you make a mistake. If people trust you and they know you’re being your authentic self, your credibility will continue to shine. Admitting uncertainties or acknowledging challenges can enhance trust and credibility. Always err on the side of transparency. Always.
Hang Out With Us
The OpenAI saga is a powerful reminder that communicating an executive transition isn’t easy—and many things must be considered. As communicators, we play a crucial role in helping people get out of their own ways and see the forest for the trees. So get your butt out there and do exactly that!
And, if you’d like to learn more about how to work with leadership teams and boards to prevent mishaps like OpenAI experienced, and you’re not already a part of the Spin Sucks Community, get your butt over there!
It’s a community full of crazy, smart professionals. It’s free, fun, smart…and you might just learn a thing or two from your peers. I’ll see you next week!