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Sam Altman says Airbnb's CEO gave him countless hours of advice on growing OpenAI: He was ‘almost always right'

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OpenAI CEO Sam Altman says he leaned heavily on advice from his friend Brian Chesky — CEO and co-founder of Airbnb — after ChatGPT became a global phenomenon.

"A lot of people" offered to help Altman once ChatGPT launched and quickly surged in popularity in late 2022, but ultimately didn't pitch in, he said in a joint interview with Chesky at the Aspen Ideas Festival on Wednesday.

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Chesky, however, became a close confidant of Altman's as the Microsoft-backed artificial intelligence company navigated its rapid ascendancy.

"Everything just went crazy for me," Altman said. "Brian was the person who would just sit down with me, for like three hours every other week, and give me a list and say, 'Here's the five things you got to do now. Here's where you're behind, here's what you're screwing up, here's what you got to proactively do, here's what you got to think about.'"

Chesky was "almost always right," Altman added. "I learned to just always shut up and follow the advice."

The hours of guidance impacted key areas of OpenAI's business, according to Altman: Chesky instructed him on who to hire and how to "map" out the company's strategy.

More recently, Chesky told him that he was "probably not thinking enough about" the political consequences of the company's generative AI technology, Altman added.

OpenAI's expanding empire

Five days after ChatGPT launched to the general public, it exceeded 1 million users. Two months later, in January 2023, the platform counted 100 million monthly active users, making it the fastest-growing consumer application in history.

That growth came with a bevy of challenges for Altman and the rest of OpenAI's leadership to navigate. The company announced multiple updated versions of ChatGPT — each aimed at making the chatbot more sophisticated — alongside its image generator DALL-E and upcoming video generator Sora.

OpenAI has also grappled with bigger questions around money, safety and the future of AI.

The company is currently structured in a complex way, with a for-profit arm controlled by OpenAI's nonprofit board. Reportedly, it has accepted $13 billion in funding from Microsoft and was valued at $80 billion or more earlier this year.

That structure faced scrutiny when Altman was unexpectedly ousted from the company last year, and reinstated as CEO less than a week later.

Last month, former OpenAI board member Helen Toner detailed a series of issues that she said precipitated the decision to fire Altman, in a podcast episode of "The TED AI Show." Among other concerns, Altman made it difficult for the board to ensure the company was prioritizing AI safety over profit, Toner said.

An OpenAI spokesperson couldn't be reached by CNBC for comment at the time.

Why leadership requires 'often painful' criticism

Altman has written about the importance of opening yourself up to feedback. "I used to hate criticism of any sort and actively avoided it," he wrote in a 2019 blog post. "Now I try to always listen to it with the assumption that it's true, and then decide if I want to act on it or not."

He noted that "the most successful people I know believe in themselves almost to the point of delusion," and that opening yourself up to "hard and often painful" criticism can help keep you from tipping over into harmful overconfidence.

Actually accepting those critiques is easier said than done, according to Don Moore, a leadership and communication professor at the University of California-Berkeley's Haas School of Business. Even if you're genuinely listening, swallowing your pride and acting on other people's advice is a real challenge, he told CNBC Make It in November.

"Courageous leaders need to seek out that sort of criticism, ask themselves how they're messing up, anticipate the errors that they're most likely to be making, and listen hard when criticism comes their way," said Moore.

Disclosure: NBCUniversal News Group, of which CNBC is a part, is the media partner of the Aspen Ideas Festival.

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