What ICANN needs now

by Maria on August 17, 2011

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.

* For a more pungent analysis of Rod’s legacy, read Kieren McCarthy or Kevin Murphy at The Register.



tomslee 08.17.11 at 6:48 pm

I have only a half-baked idea of what ICANN actually spends its days on beyond “do magic things with domain names so that they work”. But:

Presumably they will set up a search committee. I hope that committee can include or consult members of the Internet community.

What is this “Internet community”, in 2011? Am I a member? Where do you join?


Maria 08.17.11 at 6:53 pm

It is a bit vague… But in my book, being an active participant in ICANN, the IETF or Internet Governance Forum is your entrée to calling yourself a member of the ‘Internet community’.


Maria 08.17.11 at 6:54 pm

Or indeed the Regional Internet Registry community, i.e. directly involved with RIPE, ARIN, APNIC, LACNIC and AfriNIC.


Ilianu Rabuf 08.17.11 at 7:05 pm

You say:

“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.”

Is this intended to be present, past, or future tense? If ICANN senior management is mostly Americans with shallow ties to the DNS community, and simply “yes” men and women do you think a new CEO will have to clean house of these and others?


Tim 08.17.11 at 8:01 pm

Nice article Maria, well put. One note of disagreement is that, in today’s multinational business environment, you may find pure private sector leaders have more experience working with the complexities of political environments and effectively communicating and working with government ministers than you give them credit for.



Michele 08.17.11 at 8:19 pm

Excellent article as always.

Finding the right person for the role is nit going to be easy



Jim Fleming 08.17.11 at 10:13 pm

ICANN was formed in 1998 for a LIMITED Purpose for a LIMITED time.
People might be surprised at the “deals” made when ICANN was created.
“Deals” were also made when ARIN was created.

In my opinion, that purpose is complete and the time has run out.


Industry Groups are already forming around Natural Internet Communities.
People know if they are a member, a player, etc. The Internet is larger and more
complex since 1998.

Attempting to perpetuate the Cargo Cults of the 1980s DNS is an impossible task for any CEO or Board.

A NEW DNS will be emerging soon, supported by the BIG Platforms. Free Market
forces (at least in the USA) will shape the next decade. Why would any rational
human remain at ICANN with opportunities expanding? As many people have
said, “It is hard working for an organization with no future, and a management
team that has no clue how to lead it there…”

ICANN should be DISSOLVED. (absorbed)


Kieren McCarthy 08.17.11 at 10:18 pm

Great piece Maria. Agree with all of it.

I would also add that the new CEO needs to have a strong focus on culture. ICANN is in a right mess at the moment, especially internally. The only effective solution is to make it plain what ICANN stands for and to push that home every second.

Most significant is the needs for transparency and accountability to become an intrinsic part of the job, rather than something that is handled or paid lip service to.

I also think the Board needs some serious attention given to it. Too many people; too many of the same people; too little interaction outside itself.

Anyway, we shall see. I do hope the Board is a little more open in its process for finding a new CEO than last time. And, as one GAC member said to me in Singapore a few months ago, “they just need to find someone who is a good manager and who doesn’t want to be Kofi f**king Annan”.


Bruce Tonkin 08.18.11 at 7:56 am

Hello Maria,

I am interested to learn from the community about what characteritiscs are desired in an ICANN CEO. So thank you for setting out your views.

Do you have a view on the role of the Board versus the role of the CEO. That seems to be another area that it would be good to get community views on. Or another way of thinking about this is what is the role of the volunteer policy groups, versus the role of the Board, versus the role of the CEO.

Regards, Bruce Tonkin


Gordon Dick 08.18.11 at 9:43 am

I think to suggest that the next CEO needs to come from within the “500 key people” is missing a point. This is not to do down any of the talented people within the industry. You do not need to be an insider or to have been in this industry to be diplomatic, to listen before speaking, to understand that your own culture is not shared by everyone, to learn before setting direction and inspire staff while managing the organisation and keeping the support of your stakeholders.

As Kieren suggests the culture that a new CEO brings is much more important than who they are. Not everyone will agree with every decision a CEO will make but if they make such decisions in a sensitive way people will usually be more accepting of them. The real difficulty for any CEO is the variety of cultures that have to be catered for and how to sensitively manage expectations, not just those cultures that could be ascribed to countries but the difference in commercial v public sector within those cultures too.

I think the Board has a tough job ahead and I think they could usefully consider the issue of succession planning in more detail after they have a new CEO in place.



Maria 08.18.11 at 3:23 pm

Jim Fleming – your second comment is deleted. You get a single comment on my ICANN-related posts.


Maria 08.18.11 at 4:41 pm

Ilianu @ 4, it’s referring to the past tense, i.e. many senior execs gone in 18 months, and many more key people from the middle. Whether a new CEO should follow suit, I don’t really think so. She or he should work largely with what we have.Continuity and focusing on just getting the work done should be the main priorities. I think Kieren has it right that the CEO sets the tone and people work to that.


Maria 08.18.11 at 5:13 pm

Tim @ 5 – I may be overstating the case as there are certainly company executives who are excellent diplomats and familiar with policy. But there’s a difference between a high-level exec who gets flown in for, say, a committee hearing or a market entry deal, and someone who actually knows which levers to pull, and how, and that can be hard to figure out from a CV.


Maria 08.18.11 at 6:00 pm

Hi Bruce,

Many thanks for commenting. I’m going to give your questions some thought and respond tomorrow.


Maria 08.18.11 at 6:23 pm

Hi Gordon, I think we’re agreed about the type of generic characteristics the new CEO should have, and how she/he would set the tone.

Where we disagree is my belief that this time round we need an insider. A good rule of thumb some use re. the nominating committee is that it takes a new board director – i.e. one who’s come from outside the community – 2 years to be fully operational. They can be making a contribution well before that (I understand Cherine Chalaby is said to, with less than a year under his belt), but still not be in full command of what is an unusually complex environment. The CEO, also a board director, is fulltime and has a baptism of fire, but will still have a considerable lag time to being fully effective. Two lag periods in six years is too much.

As always, there are critical issues to be resolved by the current or next CEO. The new gTLD program has a well developed roadmap, but IANA negotiations must concluded by March 2012, so we will be in dangerous political territory for someone who not only doesn’t know the territory, but is themselves an unknown quantity to the people they’ll be negotiating with.

Rod’s contract goes till July, after these negotiations are due to conclude. However, I would be surprised if the Board isn’t aiming to name a replacement by the end of this year or very early 2012. 11 months is a long time to have a lame duck president.

The Board’s been very smart – waited till its own chair was re-appointed by nomcom, to avoid the horrendous uncertainty of announcing a CEO departure whilst the Board chairmanship is in transition. And they’ve also given themselves enough time to do a proper job with the added bonus of some flexibility on the deadline. But the pressure is still on to put someone respected into that seat as soon as possible.

So, some tactical reasons for a seasoned pair of hands. Though it’s my strong preference in any case.


Byron Holland 08.19.11 at 6:34 pm

A very thoughtful blog, I particularly liked the following:

“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.”

An entertaining turn of phrase, but also remarkably true.

The Board has a delicate task ahead if it is to select the best possible leader for the challenging times ahead. To begin with, they are going to require a robust, transparent process, something that was not evident last go round, something that I think hamstrung Beckstrom right out of the gate. That does not mean everyone has to have a hand in it or agree with it, but the process has to be well designed, transparent from the begining, and disciplined in its execution.

You rightly raise the point that the next CEO will require significant people management skills. Most of the folks inside ICANN are skilled knowledge workers with lots of international experience – in other words, highly mobile. Significant work needs to be done to boost morale and turn this team into a sum far greater than its parts.

Not only will the next leader need to be an honest participant in, and user of, the multi-stakeholder model, I would take it a step further. This person need to be a champion of the model itself, an ambassador and an advocate who is going to get ICANN outside its own travelling roadshow much more often to sell the virtues of multistakeholderism.

Further, the next CEO is going to have to help ICANN build its marketing and communications efforts. We can be sitting on the best governance model known, but if it is not being communincated often and effectively, those who would rather see treaty based models of governance will have the upper hand.

Many positive steps have taken place in the recent past including IDNs, DNSSEC, gTLDs, AoC (your point about hitting the ground running comes to mind from an acronym point of view alone), which leads to what I believe will be especially important – execution.

In many ways ICANN is a relatively young organization…and it shows. Take financial reporting for example. We need to improve the operational maturity of the organization in a significant way if it is going to be able to effectively deliver on all of its commitments.

We need the next leader to possess diplomatic skills, to be an ambassador for multi-stakeholderism, highly skilled in people managment, an expert in taking strategy to execution, a strong communicator, understands the tech stuff, and hits the ground running. Oh yeah, and doesn’t mind that, “running ICANN is going to be terrifying”, and that it will, “face(s) down an…existential threat that is truly FUBAR” on a regular basis.

Hmm…I’d say the Board has its work cut out for it. Good thing thay have 10 months, but they had better get on with it!


Maria 08.21.11 at 6:27 pm

Hi Bruce,

In response to your question: “Do you have a view on the role of the Board versus the role of the CEO. That seems to be another area that it would be good to get community views on. Or another way of thinking about this is what is the role of the volunteer policy groups, versus the role of the Board, versus the role of the CEO.”

My view on the role of the Board versus that of the CEO (or, slightly more broadly the executive) is that it is a grey area and ripe with mistrust. The bylaws set out some but not all of the division of labour, and we endlessly recycle the same issues and concerns, to little effect. Instead of tackling these issues head-on, we have instead the death of a thousand cuts by cosmetic, process-riddled managerialism in response.

Two examples:

Specifically on the division of labour, the ATRT recommended ( rec 6:) that work be done to distinguish issues subject to a PDP / the executive and also to develop consultation mechanisms for the latter. That’s important work and very worthwhile.

But taking growing bad faith about executive decisions versus community processes and managerializing those concerns into ‘let’s allocate a staff member to make yet another spreadsheet categorizing decisions and actions and report on that’ is wholly inadequate. The disagreement and distrust could be better dealt with by an education (i.e. on the bylaws, ‘picket fence’, fiduciary obligations,e tc.) and discussion process. But instead we go straight from the high-level statement of the problem to an incredibly granular administrative response to one tiny part of it.

Or, to use another example; the concern that staff briefing papers to the Board can be self-serving and inaccurate (I believe demonstrably so in the case of the NCUC). The staff/Board recommended cure is to change the Board submission template and create a new system of rationale statements therein. A perfectly fine idea, but not remotely close to addressing the issue that many in the community distrust staff’s motives in secretly briefing the Board.

More broadly, the relative roles of the executive, Board and policy bodies is in a permanent state of dispute at least partly because of how the executive deals with controversial decisions. Time and again, we see a decision is taken or a process followed that seems flawed, at least to parts of the community. There is hue and cry, and then, in response, not a mea culpa but the creation of a new process to fix the process, though never the decision.

It’s ‘the next time, it’ll be different’ response to controversy that primarily the executive, i.e. the next CEO, needs to shut down.

This phenomenon is often explained away by the claim that when people, e.g. the GAC or the IP lobby, disagree with the substance of a decision, they demand changes to the process that led to it. So a decision you don’t like is therefore the result of a flawed process, and that’s why we have such a proliferation of processes about processes.

But actually, what’s also happening is that the automatic defensive response of the executive to an unpopular decision is not to re-open it and discuss on the merits – or to plainly and emphatically state the constraints that led to it – but to dilute and divert opposition into what is inevitably a 12-18 month process to look at the process.

The executive has the time and resources to commit to non-substantive reviews, and community members do not. Also, demonstrably in the ATRT review, the executive can delay, resist, under-resource, publicly undermine and fail to substantively implement these reviews. It’s the 21st century equivalent of the ‘Yes, Minister’ tactic of burying difficult issues in a committee. The result is metastasizing pseudo-processes and profound cynicism and alienation of the community.

It is an executive response that piles process onto administrative process so that no one but staff, board and a very few self-interested ICANN specialists have a clue what’s going on. At root is a failure to listen or to explain why a decision is taken.

So, I believe the Board needs to constantly press the executive to address root problems, and not be waved away with administrative responses. Legal advice is all very well, but it needs to enable constructive decision-making, not to render it impossible. In the current context, the Board should be asking prospective CEOs how they would handle the root problems that make the division of labour so problematic still.


Maria 08.21.11 at 6:46 pm

Hi Byron,

Thanks for your comment! Yes, I agree with you and many others that the process of choosing the current CEO was flawed; secretive, rushed and with no sense of accountability to ICANN’s global stakeholders. It’s not a good start for anyone, and is why I really hope this time around it will be done in a more inclusive or transparent way, albeit that’s a tough thing to do and still be effective.

I also would love to see a leader who truly gets, embraces and champions the multi-stakeholder model. In a way, it’s the only thing we have going for us. There truly are achievements we can point to and say ‘that could not have been done any other way’. Take IDNs, for example. Late, yes; messy, yes; but inconceivable at, say, ITU or just somehow bubbling up in individual cc’s with no cooperation.

One thing I noticed with previous Boards was an unwillingness to stand up and celebrate ICANN – e.g. pulling the plug on 10th anniversary celebrations because we couldn’t be seen to be self-congratulatory. I hope that introversion and automatic negativity can be a thing of the past. There are a lot of people within the ICANN community who seem to think that because we’ve not yet reached nirvana on day to day multi-stakeholderism (and let’s face it, we’re a long way away), that we should shut up until we do. But you can have huge impact on encouraging and nourishing something by praising it as you go along.

The short answer on the CEO front is that it’s a tall order for the individual, and for the Board which is ultimately responsible for the hiring decision. I am really heartened that the Board is already listening well, and am keeping my fingers crossed for the rest.

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