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If You’re Thinking About Applying to Be the Next ICANN CEO…

Co-authored by Vint Cerf former ICANN board chair from 2000 to 2007 and Steve Crocker, ICANN board chair from 2011 to 2017.

ICANN is preparing to search for its next CEO. In the past and again now, each of us has been asked for advice about applying for the job. We have willingly offered our perceptions of what the job requires. The general thrust of our advice is to alert the potential applicant about the complexities and demands of the job so they can assess for themselves whether they might be a viable candidate. Our comments in these situations are, of course, purely our own opinions, and are not connected to the official posture of ICANN.

We treat these inquiries as confidential in the sense that we do not mention to anyone, not even each other, that we’ve been consulted and do not make recommendations to the board or search committee unless there’s been an explicit agreement to act as a reference.

With these caveats in mind, we offer the following criteria that a viable CEO candidate must meet.

1. CEO experience

ICANN’s budget is in the $100MM to $200MM range. ICANN has around 400 employees. ICANN is a highly visible global organization. Leading and managing an organization with these characteristics requires someone with prior demonstrated capability to operate at this level. This includes choosing and organizing direct reports, delegating appropriately, being attuned to the performance of the organization and making changes in response to either internal weaknesses or changes in the external environment. With a staff of 400, personnel changes occur constantly; incorporating new people into the organization is an ongoing process.

Further, even though ICANN is a non-profit organization and operates in a somewhat protected environment, it needs to perform and produce. The CEO must come with a “get it done” attitude that avoids unnecessary and inappropriate risks but nonetheless emphasizes accomplishments. ICANN has a presence in countries around the world. A consequence of this is that its staff and CEO need to have a multinational mindset when setting operational policy.

2. Knowledge

The Internet is a technically complex environment. The CEO needs a decent understanding of the underlying technology and sufficient background and experience to know which technical issues require attention. Lack of technical savvy often results in depending solely on taking a political or process-oriented approach to any problem. Politics and processes are essential, but they’re not sufficient. The CEO should also have an understanding of the economics of both the domain name and Internet address businesses. Both have become valuable and contentious. Domain names sell for millions of dollars in some cases. Domain names associated with “harmful” websites are sometimes seized by governments. In the US, this action is sometimes taken by the Department of Homeland Security’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) arm through legal action against the registry and/or registrar serving that domain name. IPv4 addresses go for $50 each or are leased out. The solution to that is to move everything to IPv6, but this has been a 30-year, slow-as-molasses process.

ICANN is also a complex environment. It is unlike any other organization because the very large community of volunteers in the supporting organizations and advisory committees are not subordinate to the staff. The CEO needs to understand the complexity and dynamics of this organization.

Looking outside of ICANN itself, ICANN operates within a complex ecosystem. Other organizations, such as the Internet Society, the Internet Engineering Task Force, the Regional Internet Registries, and the Root Server Operators, to name just four, pre-date ICANN and are essential players. Adding even more complexity to the ecosystem, the Unicode Consortium, W3C, and the browser community play extremely strong roles in the use of the domain names. Understanding the role and interplay among these organizations is essential. Equally important is experience and understanding of governments, including both their bureaucratic processes and a modest understanding of diplomatic processes.

3. Empathy

As noted above, ICANN operates in a complex environment. Internally, the staff is remarkably capable and quite diverse. Staff members need a leader they can look up to and trust. Externally, ICANN interacts with a broad set of cultures and organizations around the world and often at the highest levels of government, business and civil society. Governments, businesses, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and individuals will judge ICANN by its CEO as much as by its actions and mission statement. The CEO needs to be able to project competence, of course, but must also project empathy, i.e., understanding and exhibiting appreciation of the other party’s situation—their point of view, constraints, and priorities.

4. Vision

ICANN is a key part of the Internet ecosystem. The CEO must have a strong internal sense of where ICANN fits into the ecosystem and what it needs to accomplish in the next five to ten years. This vision requires balancing competing forces. Some view ICANN as a trade association. Some view it as a regulator. Some view it as a source of innovation. Some view it as the epitome of a new form of governance that transcends national boundaries. It’s a little bit of all of these, but it is not the ultimate form of any of these. Moreover, it is formally a non-for-profit, public charity [IRS 501(c)(3) in US legal terms], subject to the laws of the State of California and US federal law. Its scope of action is constrained in some ways because it is not a formally recognized international entity.

“Vision” in this sense includes keeping abreast of changes in the ecosystem and maintaining a sense of how to lead ICANN in the changing environment. Some will interpret “vision” to mean the ambition of making ICANN the leader or most important part of the Internet ecosystem. We think the correct and much better meaning of “vision” here is a clear-eyed sense of where ICANN belongs and an understanding of how to manage ICANN’s navigation over time.

The location of this criterion as the fourth and last should not be misunderstood as suggesting this criterion is less important than the others. It’s not. Vision is essential, and, of course, the vision must be aligned with the values of the board and the community.

By Steve Crocker, President, Edgemoor Research Institute

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