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Who should be ICANN’s next CEO?

Kevin Murphy, August 18, 2011, 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.