ICANN fires its CEO

The CEO of ICANN Rod Beckstrom has announced he is leaving the organization at the end of his contract.

According to a tweet sent out by Beckstrom at 4.20pm PST: “I have decided to wrap up my service at ICANN July 2012”, adding “Press release soon.”

The press release [pdf] followed 20 minutes later and comprised largely of Beckstrom listing his achievements in the first and third person. “I can summarize my time here in four words: strong execution, great team-building,” he was quoted as saying.

Board chair Steve Crocker, who took over the post only two months ago, noted that: “The Board of Directors fully supports Rod through the completion of his July 2012 term.”

Behind the pronouncements lies a different story. It is well known in ICANN circles that there has been significant concern over Beckstrom’s performance for some time. And we understand that Beckstrom’s “decision” was made for him at a secret Board meeting earlier this month.

Unlike the three other CEOs that have presided over ICANN in its 11-year history, Beckstrom lobbied hard to have his contract renewed, even giving a public speech at ICANN’s most recent meeting in Singapore in June listing what he had achieved as CEO. Accompanying today’s press release, somewhat bizarrely, is a separate PDF listing Beckstrom’s “notable accomplishments”.

Credit score

Ironically, it is Beckstrom’s attempt to personally attach himself to all the organization’s successes that is a major reason for his failure as an ICANN CEO: he is seen as too quick to claim credit for others’ work and to put personal promotion ahead of effective management. In two years in charge, almost the entire senior management team has left. Community questions as to why were met with obtuse reference to industry percentages.

Having written a book lauding the power of leaderless structures over traditional hierarchy – the first likened to a starfish, the second to a spider – many were surprised when Beckstrom created an even stronger hierarchy within ICANN, with him as the head. And the bottleneck.

Beckstrom’s claim to have encouraged “great team-building” were famously called into question at the organization’s meeting in San Francisco in March this year when former staff member Maria Farrell took the microphone during a public forum to announce her “profound disquiet about how the organization is operationally being managed” and talked of a "hollowing out of expertise” and a “climate of fear stalking the ICANN staff”. Her comments were met with prolonged applause.

Parachute

Likewise, Beckstrom’s most significant claim to have negotiated an historic agreement with the US government that saw ICANN gain greater autonomy is largely fanciful: he was in charge for less than three months before the agreement was signed, whereas negotiations had been going on for 18 months between ICANN senior staff and the NTIA, most notably Fiona Alexander. Discussions at the time were opposed by both sides but nevertheless started when ICANN expressed its desire to break free of the US government during a mid-term review of the “Joint Project Agreement”.

Beckstrom was parachuted into the agreement and immediately raised eyebrows when he sought full credit for it. It is telling that the man who was really responsible for the new agreement – VP of Corporate Affairs Paul Levins - left within months of Beckstrom’s appointment.

Likewise the two other main achievements by ICANN – the introduction of internationalized domain names and the approval of the Applicant Guidebook for hundreds of new Internet extensions – were the result of many prior years of work by ICANN staff and the broader Internet community.

The attempt to claim credit for both by Beckstrom did not sit well in a culture that goes out of its way to acknowledge the work done by others in reaching an end goal in Internet policy.

Loss of staff

Similarly, advances in ICANN’s ability to effectively manage work were largely due to ICANN’s COO Doug Brent who quit unexpectedly in April 2010. Others disappeared largely unnoticed. The head of ICANN’s global partnerships team, and the key member of ICANN’s staff that followed global political developments, Theresa Swinehart also left in 2010; later followed by former British Ambassador Nick Thorne who was key in negotiating several key international agreements on IDNs.

The man widely acknowledged as saving ICANN’s reputation over its management of the crucial IANA contract, David Conrad, and its Chief Security Advisor Greg Rattray also slid away. They were joined later by ICANN’s CFO.

Combined with a series of gaffes, that included: publicly telling government representatives that the domain name system was under constant attack and wasn’t sufficiently stable (something that earned Beckstrom a rare public rebuke from the Internet Society and the country code Names Supporting Organization (ccNSO)); having a public row with a representative of the ITU on stage at the Internet Governance Forum; and flying to an opening ceremony instead of staying at a critical meeting over the creation of new top-level domains; led many to feel Beckstrom had become a liability.

That feeling was further strengthened by Beckstrom’s poor handling of an independent review into ICANN’s accountability and transparency that left the US government fuming and prompted an ongoing review of the IANA contract that is crucial to ICANN’s future.

Cyber-insecurity

It didn’t help that Beckstrom was already thought of by many in the US government as a crank due to his very public resignation as the Department of Homeland Security's cyber-security chief which was accompanied by the publication of a caustic resignation letter highlighting inter-departmental tensions. Sadly, the letter only served to deepen those rifts, with the National Cybersecurity Center having had three directors in three years and US-CERT five directors in seven years.

Despite his failures however, Beckstrom retains the support and affection of many in the ICANN community for bringing some life to its proceedings.

He turned around the tedious opening ceremonies at ICANN meetings with live music and cultural art shows before the Board forced him to scale it back over successive meetings. Most recent opening ceremonies have again slipped into a tedium of uninspiring speeches.

That effort to bring in some creativity has however been immortalized in an evening “Music Night” at each meeting that sees attendees take the stage alongside a professional band. It provides much needed respite amid what are frequently long and difficult negotiations.

Beckstrom was also far more open and less mired in clandestine politics than his predecessor, for a while running small group meetings with community members in order to ask their views. He also tried to make the organization more open by talking honestly and publicly about events - something that saw him bitten on several occasions. He was also liked for trying to step above the day-to-day politics by reminding people of the bigger picture.

Thin-skinned

Ultimately though Beckstrom was unsuited – and too thin-skinned - to deal with the complex, geo-political environment in which ICANN lives. As criticism grew, Beckstrom retreated within ICANN pulling the culture and staff with him. An independent review complained of staff and CEO “laboring under an attitude of inordinate defensiveness and distrust”.

Beckstrom still has a little under a year to serve out his contract. In typical over-the-top style he declared: “I remain committed to leading this critical organization with the utmost dedication.”

The reality is however that the search for a new CEO has begun and ICANN has simply given itself 11 months to find a replacement in order to avoid the rushed process that led to Beckstrom being appointed in the first place.

Comments

Cultural presentations

We had that dragon thing in Singapore. That was okay. Sorta.