The sudden departure of Sam Altman as the CEO of OpenAI has become a hot topic for tech gossip columns.
This story is filled with tension caused by inadequate communication. It is an excellent example of what not to do as a nonprofit board, regardless of whether you agree or disagree with the board’s decision to uphold its mission.
Most of the time, the way you do something, not the decision itself, can go sideways and have unintended consequences.
3 Mistakes by OpenAI’s Board
Mistake #1: Missing Expertise
OpenAI’s board has some of the brightest brains in tech.
But the best boards include diverse minds with both business savvy and technical expertise.
Mistake #2: Too Small of a Crew
The OpenAI board consisted of only four people.
As they say, too many cooks spoil the broth.
But too few, and you might burn the kitchen down.
The ideal number of board members is between nine and thirteen.
Mistake #3: Failing to Communicate Transparently
In my 20 years of experience serving in nonprofit executive leadership and working with nonprofit boards, I can tell you this: It never pays to hide.
OpenAI’s board failed to communicate with conviction, and that created a void that the rumor mill is working overtime to fill.
Top Strategies for Avoiding These Boardroom Mistakes
Strategy #1: Round Out Your Board
Why should you have 9–13 board members?
Having specific skill sets on your nonprofit board will help your team make better decisions.
Here are several roles I suggest you have represented on your board.
- Fundraisers: Folks who can turn handshakes into donations—or people who have significant giving capacity.
- Legal Experts: Those who can parse the fine print or help you navigate legal labyrinths.
- Financial Experts: Leaders with the know-how to provide additional points of view regarding financial reports.
- PR/Communication Specialists: Seasoned veterans who can help you navigate the stormy seas of PR.
- Marketing/Media Gurus or Influencers: Experts in brand who will help you understand how to better speak to audiences.
- Tech Prophets or Innovators: People who can help you forecast how technology will impact your nonprofit and find ways to harness it for good.
- Policy/Government Experts: Those with deep policy-making experience… especially crucial for human services nonprofits trying to make lasting change.
- Strategic Partners: Collaborators from partner organizations committed to joining you in creating systemic change.
- Foundations (or Investors, in OpenAI’s case): Key foundation partnerships with valuable perspective on your nonprofit’s projects or programs.
What might have happened differently if OpenAI’s board were more well-rounded and had these roles represented?
Their decision-making likely would have involved more transparent communications, deeper analysis, and a commitment to care for the staff involved.
Strategy #2: Include Diverse Players
Invite people with different backgrounds onto your board.
Consider not only gender and ethnic diversity but also socioeconomic diversity.
Having a team with varying life experiences creates space for different perspectives and better decision-making.
Strategy #3: Strengthen Your Communications
Don’t move forward with a decision until you have a communications strategy in place. Here are 3 tips to help you plan how you’ll communicate.
Don’t Go Dark
Silence speaks volumes
When your board stays silent, others will create alternative narratives to fill the void.
Stay visible with your communications. Be as honest and transparent as possible.
And use PR opportunities to reaffirm your commitment to your cause.
Anticipate the Butterfly Effect
Board decisions always carry an impact that ripples out.
Before a decision is made, list any second- and third-order effects.
Pick the top three that are most likely to occur, and create contingency plans for each one.
Socialize Decisions to Understand Impact
Consider surveying some of your staff to better understand their viewpoints on the matter at hand.
This can involve a 360 review or a simple poll to help you gain a wider range of insights.
Strategy #4: Have a Plan for Filling the Void
Leadership gaps are like black holes; it’s best to fill them quickly.
But don’t leave it as an afterthought.
Start working on a succession plan well before you create gaps in leadership.
Why Your Board Needs a Succession Plan
As a leader, you care deeply about your nonprofit’s cause.
But don’t fall into the trap of believing that you are the only one who can run it.
Besides, what if something happens that means you can’t show up to work? You owe it to the people you serve to make sure a succession plan is in place.
Your Top Takeaways
OpenAI’s ousting of Sam Altman is a cautionary tale of how not to handle a CEO’s exit.
It throws a spotlight on the need for
- a diverse board
- transparent decision-making
- a culture of open communication
Not only are these the key ingredients for leadership transitions… but they’re also the recipe for avoiding governance melodrama on your nonprofit’s board.