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Who should be ICANN’s next CEO?

Kevin Murphy, August 18, 2011, 10:18:38 (UTC), Domain Policy

With Rod Beckstrom now less than a year away from leaving the CEO job at ICANN, following his resignation this week, the rumor mill is already spitting out ideas about who should replace him.

While his contract is not set to expire until July 1, 2012, that does not necessarily mean Beckstrom’s replacement will not be named and in situ before then.

His predecessor, Paul Twomey, also gave about 10 months notice when he resigned in March 2009, and Beckstrom had taken over by July.

Twomey played out the remainder of his contract in an advisory capacity, to smooth the transition. He eventually left in January 2010.

So it’s quite possible ICANN’s executive search team will start its hunt sooner rather than later. But where should they look and what type of candidate should they choose?

It’s proved to be a well-compensated but often thankless job.

Candidates must be equally capable of sharing applause with world leaders one day and then sitting in a stuffy meeting room patiently taking shit from community members the next.

They need to be able to act not just as a figurehead but as a diplomat, negotiator and man manager, somebody confident handling large budgets and larger egos.

Candidates with cat-herding experience and a target tattooed on their foreheads will be a shoo-in.

It’s been pointed out ICANN’s four CEO appointees to date have alternated between, for want of better words, “insider” and “outsider” candidates. (The chair has a similar rule.)

Beckstrom came directly from the US government, whereas Twomey had been steeped in ICANN culture for four years as head of the Governmental Advisory Committee when he took over in 2003.

There’s no point speculating about “outsiders” at this point – ICANN could hire basically anyone – but people are already talking about known faces that might put themselves forward.

An insider may be a good call this time around, given the major challenges – new gTLDs and the renewal of the IANA contract, to name two – ICANN faces over the coming year.

As ICANN alum Maria Farrell, one of the people responsible for publicizing criticism of Beckstrom’s management style, noted yesterday, “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.

That’s a pretty strong endorsement of an “insider” candidate – somebody who already knows their way around ICANN’s complex personality-driven machinery.

While there’s nothing stopping ICANN promoting somebody from within its own ranks, no names jump out as obvious candidates.

Most senior staffers are either Beckstrom-era appointees with less than two years under their belt, or hold specialist roles that would not necessarily make them CEO fodder.

An “insider”, in this case, is more likely to mean somebody from the broader ICANN community.

Two names that have popped up more than once during conversations since Beckstrom’s announcement are Chris Disspain (head of auDA in Australia) and Lesley Cowley (head of Nominet in the UK).

Both, it is whispered, were on the shortlist in 2009. Disspain now sits on the ICANN board of directors and Cowley is the newly installed chair of the ccNSO (replacing Disspain).

Both know ICANN pretty much inside-out and have many years experience managing the policy bodies for their own respective country-code top-level domains.

They are also native English speakers. That’s obviously a slight advantage – English is ICANN’s lingua franca – but not necessarily a deal-breaker.

Some say ICANN could look elsewhere in the world for its new leader. Nigel Roberts, CEO of ccTLD manager Island Networks, wrote yesterday:

ICANN should at least seriously consider this time to appoint a CEO from a non-Anglo-Saxon background to show the rest of the world it really is serious about its purported commitment to diversity.

While blind affirmative action would obviously be a terrible idea, I would have little difficulty imagining the likes of Accenture veteran Cherine Chalaby or career diplomat Bertrand De La Chapelle – ICANN directors native to non-Anglo nations – being put forward as candidates.

Both men have shown a dedication (ambition?) within ICANN, with British-Egyptian Chalaby unsuccessfully standing for chairman this year and BDLC quitting his job in the French government in order to take on his uncompensated role on ICANN’s board.

I hear good things about Chalaby, and his experience in the business world is extensive, though with just a year’s ICANN time served some may say he’s a little green. And if BDLC gets the job, we may have to extend ICANN meetings by a few days to cope with his verbosity.

While a CEO could be hired from essentially anywhere in the world, a willingness to live and work in Marina Del Rey, California may also prove an advantage.

Even though Beckstrom is based just a few hundred miles away in Silicon Valley, I don’t doubt that his distance from ICANN headquarters has contributed to the perception that he’s out of touch with his troops, surrounded by an inner circle of trusted advisers.

That said, I believe that Twomey managed to get away with spending a lot of his time in his native Australia while he was CEO, to little complaint.

Experience in the business world will also be an advantage.

ICANN has a $70 million budget for this fiscal year, and it could well find itself handling double or triple that amount when the new gTLD program kicks off next year.

Would a candidate with experience with similar budgets make a better choice? If so, how many likely applicants would actually would fit that criterion?

There are not a great many “insiders” with CEO experience at organizations of a comparable size, and companies that large do not usually send their CEOs to ICANN meetings anyway.

A senior executive from a domain name company, perhaps a VP looking to get their teeth into their first C-level position, may be a more likely applicant.

But a hire from industry could also present a perception of conflict of interest problem, coming at a time when ICANN is coming under pressure to review its ethics policies.

If Peter Dengate Thrush’s move to Minds + Machines from ICANN’s chair raised eyebrows, imagine how it could appear if ICANN’s CEO was hired directly from a registry or registrar.

As fun as it would be, I think we can probably rule out Bob Parsons for the time being.

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Comments (6)

  1. Probably the most qualified executive in the industry who founded and ran a multi-billion dollar global company, has a Doctorate in Business Administration and a degree from Harvard Business School, was the leader of US Government’s Telecommunications delegation at the ITU in Geneva from 1996-2000, was the father of internet telephony and VOIP and knows more about domain names and the internet than almost anyone next to Vint Cerf would be Dr. Christopher W. Hartnett.

    Actually I think he use to live in Marina Del Rey, California and I know he has one of his homes in La Jolla, California. The biggest problem would be getting him to agree to do it because he doesn’t need the money nor the headaches but he would be by far the most qualified Chairman/CEO candidate out there plus he has no conflict of interests with the registries or the registrars yet, knows them all intimately.

  2. I run a TLD registry. I don’t recall the name.

    So ‘all’ is somewhat hyperbolic.

  3. Brian Rees says:

    @Nigel,

    With all due respect, your (GG) registry isn’t what hyperbolically “ANYONE” would refer to as “Main Stream” and hence, wouldn’t be a candidate for anyone of consequence in the industry is to have on their “must know” list. That being said, I am sure that many at ICANN know you and enjoy your company since you have been around for quite some time.

    Your long time participation and service noted, it never ceases to amaze me how so many dealing with ICANN are so locked into that closed universe, they have very little real knowledge of the actual domain names and the real important international domain name industry players as opposed to the ivory tower ICANN bureaucrats. Those many that show up for conferences three times a year because they like to travel yet are years behind and constantly playing catch-up to the industries real trends and innovations. The ones under the delusion that ICANN is the “hub” of what is happening in the domain name world.

    Why doesn’t it surprise me that you don’t know Dr. Hartnett, who is in the Domainer’s Hall of Fame and one of the top people in the domain name business since 1992? You, of all people should know him I would think. Like you, he was an early adopter. At the age of 12 in 1965 he built his own computer. I don’t know him either and I am just a small domain name investor, but I most certainly know “of” him and have listen to him speak at all the major domain name conferences.
    He also lives part-time in my home State of North Carolina so maybe I am being biased here.

    Here is a link to a main stream domain name “industry” article about him:
    http://dnjournal.com/cover/2008/june.htm

    The problem I have here isn’t with you Nigel not knowing Dr. Hartnett and forgive me if this feels like a personal attack, it most certainly isn’t and it isn’t directly specifically at you, and I have little doubt you are an intelligent and nice, accomplished person after reading your Bio. The problem I really have is with the hard core “ICANN” community which is so out of touch with the real “Domain Name World” and it is so ironic because the words “Domain Name” are part of their DNS root system yet they shun the domain business as if they wanted nothing to do with them.

    Many top domain name industry players are starting to show up at the ICANN conferences but make no mistake, the ICANN board and management is a closed group of international bureaucrats that don’t have a clue as to what the real business is behind domain names. Unless of course the conflict of interest of resigning as Chairman of ICANN and going to work for one of the top gTLD support firms constitutes good and ethical business. The business model for the new gTLD’s is still a big question mark and wouldn’t it be ironic if they were all chasing their own shadows and none of it ever amounts to anything other than pure exaggeration. Talk about hyperbole.

    Case in point of ” the estranged and disconnected ICANN” can be seen the ICANNwiki missing many of the world’s TOP major Domainers such as Kevin Ham, Scott Day and Sahar Sahid yet they have over 1000 names of people that are 6 steps down on the ladder of some of the related domain name and mostly ICANN industry support companies. Who ever is picked as the next ICANN CEO, I hope the committee has the foresight and vision to pick someone who actually understands the main stream Domain Business and are not just part of the closed, out of touch remote system call ICANN because so far all they have proved that “They Can’t.”

    Sorry if any of this insults you Nigel, but just by the fact that you are reading domain blogs such as this tells us that you aren’t that out of it. Frankly, may be one of the select few that are making the attempt to bridge the huge gap between ICANN and the Domain Name World discusses above. Maybe you should take a run at being the new ICANN CEO.

    • Kevin Murphy says:

      I’d never heard of the guy either.

      Having read that interview at DN Journal, and another one at AllThings.tv I can’t help but wonder what the big deal is. He’s a rich guy who collects domain names. And?

      The only pearl of wisdom I was able to glean (once I’d picked through all the bogus Eastern philosopy hokum, which frankly ICANN doesn’t need any more of than it already has) was basically: “Buy low, sell high.”

      Hardly rocket science.

      His claim to fame in the 1990s? Buying 25,000 names (at 1990s prices) that begin with the prefix “global”. Doesn’t strike me as a particularly visionary move.

      Now he says he “hardly ever” sells a domain.

      Meanwhile, VeriSign (which does go to ICANN meetings), takes hundreds of thousands of dollars out of his pocket every year for 17,000 premium .tv names that he can’t seem to sell.

      I know which one I would call “mainstream”.

      Help me out here, what are these “real trends and innovations” of which you speak?

  4. Brian Rees says:

    Oh Kevin, so Nigel is a friend of yours I see. He has posted here before so your protecting him? Sorry to tread on your domain. Hardly rocket science as to what is happening here. Have you built any $2 Billion dollar businesses lately? Did you have all those thousands of employees in over 100 countries? What domains were you buying in 1992 if you didn’t like his choices? Seeing you don’t consider what this guy has done as being a great accomplishment and achievement maybe you did something better? Maybe you have a degree from Harvard Business School too and you have been just holding out on us. I wouldn’t call another blog in the already crowed domain blogging sphere following real trends and an innovation. And?

    And now I see that you’re an expert and judge on Eastern Philosophies too. Or are you just a closed minded bigot as well? What do you hate Jews and Muslims too seeing that you obviously don’t have a tolerance for Hindu’s? With this kind of attitude you call yourself a good journalist? Maybe you should be President of ICANN. Then we would have all the ignorance in one place.

    • Kevin Murphy says:

      I notice you haven’t answered the question.

      What’s going on in the buy-side of the market that makes it, in your view, more qualified to be described as the “mainstream” of the domain name industry?

      Getting all ad hominem on my ass doesn’t really help your argument buddy.

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