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What that OpenAI crisis can teach the rest of us

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30 November 2023

Isabel Berwick

Recent events at OpenAI made for possibly the wildest corporate meltdown ever seen. A recap for anyone (anyone?) who hasn’t been following it: the board of the Silicon Valley company — makers of everyone’s favourite CV-and-essay-writing software, ChatGPT — got rid of superstar chief executive Sam Altman, seemingly out of nowhere. Nearly all the staff threatened to leave. Altman was reinstated. Cue a reset, with a new (all-male 🤨) board in place. For a fascinating insight into what this all means for the company’s direction and the future of artificial intelligence research, see the latest Lex newsletter (Premium FT sub required to access and sign up) by Elaine Moore.

It’s an extreme situation, but plenty of people find themselves in workplaces where a charismatic founder or CEO suddenly leaves, or is ejected. And organisational crises of any sort materialise very suddenly. When that happens, what’s the first thing that any manager or leader should do?

I asked Frances Frei for advice. She’s the Harvard Business School professor and leadership coach who went into Uber to sort out its culture after software engineer Susan Fowler’s blog exposed internal bullying and harassment. (I highly recommend Frances’s workplace podcast Fixable, which she co-hosts with her wife, Anne Morriss.)

If you are left unexpectedly in charge, Frances says the priority is to “make it clear that there is someone in charge. Packs need leaders, and in this regard, humans are packs. You want to reveal that you are both in control of the situation and capable of directing the organisation to meet its stakeholder needs.

“Do not try to be the person who left — you’ll fall short and lose trust because people will not get a clear sense of who you really are. Meet with as many constituents as possible and ask questions. The goal is to learn and to reveal that you are invested in their perspective.”

And what about those of us who are regular staff members? At least the leaders are somewhat “in the loop” on what’s going on during corporate turbulence. Everyone else relies on Whatsapps and hearsay 🙉. Frances advises: “In times of sudden departures and instability, keep an open mind and look for opportunities in the shifting status quo. Call on your curiosity and suspend your judgment wherever possible. Take care of people around you and default to rigour and optimism.”

I also talked to Kirstin Ferguson, author of Head & Heart: The Art of Modern Leadership. In 2018, Kirstin was appointed by the Australian prime minister as acting chair of the board of its national broadcaster ABC, to steer it through a sudden crisis.

Kirstin offers this advice from her experience of crisis leadership: “Your world gets very small when you are in the middle of a public crisis. Everything else disappears and the crisis becomes the centre of your day, your thoughts, your interactions. Because of that it is important to have people around you who not only support you on a personal level but can also help you course correct when you find your thinking, invariably, is unable to see the widest possible view of what is unfolding.”

I also asked her about other lessons that boards should learn (so far) from what happened at OpenAI: “If there had been a growing chasm between the purported purpose of the board and the operations of the business, why wasn’t it sorted out sooner? It is as though the board chose the hardest and most risky solution to the issue and completely failed to ‘read the room’ — a room full of their investors, employees, key partners and more. Lessons for boards from this is to take action the moment you see a disconnect growing between the board and management; it will only get worse if you don’t act.”

The tl; dr in all this? Communication, communication, communication. Repeat ♾️. Have you got personal reflections on crisis leadership?

Do email me: You can be anonymous.

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