In March, I wrote about ICANN’s current leadership, and how it is costing the organization its key people and international reputation. I publicly addressed ICANN’s Board of Directors with my concerns during its San Francisco meeting, and was astonished by the level of support for my view. My aim was to make very public an issue that was deeply damaging to the organization behind closed doors and help make it impossible for the Board to continue to publicly ignore.
ICANN’s Board has now decided not to renew Rod Beckstrom’s contract as CEO when the deal expires in 2012.* There had been calls for Beckstrom to resign or be fired before the end of his contract, but I’m glad the Board is ensuring that the search for a new CEO is not rushed unnecessarily. Hasten slowly, as my grandmother used to say.
As many know, the Board’s new Chair, Dr. Steve Crocker, has spent considerable time over the past year or so on regular phone calls to Rod Beckstrom, not so much in coaching mode as providing a sounding board and voice of experience. That solid working relationship is a credit to both and will help to ease the transition to new leadership.
The Board has given itself time to think hard about a new CEO and make sure the decision is the right one. Presumably they will set up a search committee. I hope that committee can include or consult members of the Internet community. Here are some points the search committee might consider.
‘Multi-stakeholder’ is not a slogan. It’s ICANN’s DNA.
Rod’s most obvious legacy is a largely new, mostly American executive team with shallow ties to the global Internet naming and numbering community. They will need to work hard with the community to show they understand that ‘multi-stakeholder’ is more than a slogan, and that transparency and accountability are not optional.
The next CEO needs to understand that ICANN is not a California nonprofit that happens to have a lot of volunteers. It’s a unique, multi-stakeholder organisation with a global responsibility to Internet users everywhere.
Avri Doria, who has long experience as a volunteer in ICANN and the IETF puts it well:
“There is a mismatch in the self-identity of ICANN. To some of us, both among the volunteers and among the professional staff, ICANN is a multi-stakeholder driven organization that has hired a professional staff that implements the decisions of the volunteers and assists those volunteers with their work.
Others, I believe especially some on the Board and among the senior staff, seem to view ICANN as a relatively standard corporate structure that has as one of its unusual functions dealing with and managing the sometimes difficult groups of volunteers who make their job more complex.
I believe more has to be done to make sure that the distinctive character of ICANN as a multi-stakeholder driven organization is preserved and furthered.”
ICANN’s community members aren’t a nuisance to be managed, nor simply a rod to beat the ITU’s back with. They are why the organization exists at all. The Board could do worse than pull a CEO from this pool.
Follow the money, and the politics, and the technology
The CEO needs to master the detail. Unless she or he understands the business models, geo-politics, technology and market trends, and all the gory technical details about how the Internet works, the CEO will not understand what motivates the scores of interested parties clamouring at the table.
There are no shortcuts to mastery, and no room for a figure-head. With a minimum two-year learning curve for a rookie CEO to be fully effective in this role, we need someone who can hit the ground running.
Put it another way, globally, there are probably about 500 key people involved in running the DNS and numbering systems. If the CEO doesn’t know these people already, and know where the bodies are buried – i.e. is not already one of the 500 – then she or he will be a liability for at least the first year.
Also, recognize that this job demands a successful track record in international policy and political circles, as well as good, old-fashioned operational experience. There is a real temptation to hire plausible-sounding management types who have led tech organisations undergoing rapid growth.
But folks, setting up a sales office in Asia is not in the same league as dealing effectively and diplomatically with ministers around the world. Pure private sector leaders simply don’t understand the complexity of operating in a political environment, and we don’t have time to teach them.
(This is not a shot at Rod, who worked as a senior appointee in the USG before he joined ICANN.)
Our people are our greatest asset. No, really.
To lose one or two VPs/Chiefs may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose three or four looks like carelessness. To lose seven is vandalism.
The remaining long-term ICANN staff are demoralized and eyeing the exits, especially as the new top level domain program creates opportunities for them to take their insider knowledge and relationships elsewhere. A new CEO needs to value quality of work and integrity, not simply reward yes men and women. To retain good staff, she or he needs to rein in the prevailing mediocrity and caution that destroy motivation and ingenuity on sight. Encouraging staff to develop themselves and take risks – and backing them up when they fail – is the best way to encourage a confident, open culture of cooperation with the community.
Running ICANN is always going to be terrifying. It faces down a political or legal existential threat that is truly FUBAR about every two years. (Of course some of these, it makes for itself.) Hats off to anyone with the courage to take it on.
So credit where it’s due; I don’t agree with much of how Rod runs the organization, but his instinct to publicly call a spade a spade is admirable, albeit wielded inopportunely. A CEO needs to override sensible advice once in a while, and set out a vision just an inch or two beyond everyone else’s grasp.
Good luck to Rod who still has miles to go with ICANN, and to the Board that must now decide how to replace him.—————————————————————————————————————————————————————————