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With his sudden return to OpenAI, Sam Altman becomes the latest 'boomerang CEO'

Sam Altman speaks at the OpenAI DevDay event on Nov. 6, in San Francisco. He has been reinstated as OpenAI's chief executive, days after being ousted by its board of directors.
Justin Sullivan
Getty Images
Sam Altman speaks at the OpenAI DevDay event on Nov. 6, in San Francisco. He has been reinstated as OpenAI's chief executive, days after being ousted by its board of directors.

Updated November 22, 2023 at 11:01 AM ET

With his sudden return late Tuesday after several turbulent days in Silicon Valley, CEO Sam Altman became the latest ousted executive to rejoin the organization he helped to found — in this case, OpenAI, the artificial intelligence company that forced the entire tech industry to reorient when it released ChatGPT last year.

After his sudden firing Friday by OpenAI's board of directors, hundreds of OpenAI employees threatened to quit if Altman was not brought back. Investors campaigned to reinstate him. And Altman himself had hinted at a possible return Sunday, less than 48 hours after the company's board announced his departure, when he posted a photo of himself wearing an OpenAI visitor badge to the social media site X. ("The first and last time I ever wear one of these," he wrote.)

Then, in a dramatic reversal late Tuesday, the company said it had reinstated Altman as its chief executive and that it would create a new board of directors.

Dell CEO Michael Dell (left) in 2013, former Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey in 2018 and former Apple CEO Steve Jobs in 2009.
Justin Sullivan and Phillip Faraone / Getty Images
Getty Images
Dell CEO Michael Dell (left) in 2013, former Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey in 2018 and former Apple CEO Steve Jobs in 2009.

Ousted CEOs who return to their companies, usually after an absence of several years — also known as "boomerang CEOs" — are a small but prominent genre of company leader. Often, companies turn to former executives in times of crisis or transition, like Bob Iger of Disney or Howard Schultz of Starbucks.

An outsize share of returning CEOs could also be called boomerang founders, or those who are coming back to the company they helped to found.

Among them are Jack Dorsey of Twitter, who was canned by Twitter's board in 2008 before returning in 2015, and Michael Dell, who stepped down from his namesake computing company in 2004 before its board asked him to return three years later.

Perhaps no founder has found more fame or success in returning than Steve Jobs, who co-founded Apple in 1976 and departed nine years later. After his return in 1997, Jobs steered the struggling Apple to the cultural powerhouse it remains today on the backs of products like the iPod and iPhone.

But research suggests that boomerang CEOs, including those who were founders, perform worse than first-time chief executives.

"Boomerang founders might be a sentimental story of re-unification between the company and its old founder CEO but the reality points that such returning CEOs make things worse," Kalin Kolev, a business professor at Marquette University, wrote in an email to NPR.

Kolev and a team of researchers studied the boomerang CEO effect, comparing the performance of 167 such CEOs to thousands of other top executives at S&P 1500 firms over a 25-year period.

They found boomerang CEOs performed "significantly worse," said co-author Chris Bingham, a professor at the University of North Carolina Kenan-Flagler Business School.

On average, the annual stock performance of their companies was more than 10% lower than their first-time CEO counterparts, the researchers found.

"Between the time in which they leave and return, changes inevitably occur in consumer preferences, competitors, suppliers, demographic shifts, or the broader economy," Bingham wrote in an email to NPR. That dynamic is especially true of fast-changing industries, like tech, he added.

And founders face particular challenges as returning CEOs, Kolev said.

"Founders are usually entrepreneurs who possess skills necessary to run a new venture," he said. "However, they often lack the administrative skills to run a larger and more complex firm."

In Altman's case, a return to OpenAI after only several days' absence sets him apart from most boomerang CEOs. And there's no indication he was a poor manager overwhelmed by the size or changes at the company.

"He has been out for [a] few days and nothing significant has changed with the company and the surrounding context/environment," Kolev said before the announcement of Altman's return. "Him coming back might have a calming effect given the strong support he has among employees."

However, Bingham cautioned that "the organization's internal chaos over the last few days is likely to have a lasting impact."

Fernando Alfonso contributed reporting.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Becky Sullivan has reported and produced for NPR since 2011 with a focus on hard news and breaking stories. She has been on the ground to cover natural disasters, disease outbreaks, elections and protests, delivering stories to both broadcast and digital platforms.

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