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Cometh the hour, Cometh the man
by .Nxt | 26 Jun 2012 |
ICANN's new CEO is off to a good start, but has a long way to go
New CEO Fadi Chehade provides an excellent first impression. Photo: ICANN
One of the problems with the "multi-stakeholder" model used to decide many Internet policies is that by definition it contains a large number of diverse groups, making it extremely difficult to manage.
All the more remarkable then that the new CEO of one of the Internet's key policy bodies, ICANN, managed to win universal acclaim in his inaugural speech at the second of the organization's three annual meetings in Prague this week.
It was no mean feat: the organization is in the depths of its largest-ever undertaking - the expansion of the number of registries it oversees from 18 to over 1,000 in just one year - and so far at least the job has proved overwhelming.
Literally the day before the meeting started, and while it was still running, the process for deciding how those hundreds of new Internet extensions would be prioritized was thrown out, producing enormous uncertainty. That followed on the heels of a "glitch" in ICANN's software that displayed confidential details of applications to competitors, as well as the subsequent release of applicant's home addresses to the world.
So when Fadi Chehade took the stage to give his vision of the future, he faced a hopeful but deeply frustrated audience. Twenty minutes later, thanks to a speech that hit all the right buttons while deftly avoiding the many landmines, he had bought enough goodwill to clear a path forward. At least until the organization's next meeting in October.
Anatomy of a speech
A number of aspects of Chehade's speech struck a chord with the audience. First was his promise to listen to people - something that has been in dangerously short supply within the organization for the past few years.
Of course every new CEO is in listening mode while they try to understand the organization they need to lead, but the claim was lent weight by Mr Chehade's sincerity and the fact he had clearly listened to his own Board in preparing the speech (a draft of which was wisely run by them the previous day).
"I am all about inclusion, and inclusion starts by stepping out of the organization and looking at it from the outside, not being inside and seeing everything our way," he told a delighted crowd, tired of the 'them versus us' mindset currently in place.
Having told a compelling personal story of how he was forced to leave Beirut as a child and wound up in the United States peeling onions and unable to speak English, Chehade noted that he was "driven by building consensus. It is the reason I am here today. There is no other reason. I love doing this."
He is more interested in getting things done than figuring out who should get the credit; much-needed internationalization of the heavily American ICANN will come from understanding how other cultures think, not how many offices are opened up around the world or how many languages people speak; any reforms are "meaningless" if ICANN cannot perform technically; the organization will be more open and transparent; all decisions will be made in the public interest.
All of these statements were met with delight. Just as importantly, the speech contained no missteps. And he was further assisted by the leaving speech given immediately afterwards by the current CEO who combined his trademark egocentricity with an infuriating habit of claiming credit for others' work. In contrast, the humble Chehade shone.
Looking under the bonnet
After his fine words, Mr Chehade now has the far more difficult task of turning them into deeds. It will be no easy task.
He inherits a dysfunctional and risk-adverse organization that lost many of its best staff under the current CEO and which has learnt to function best in crisis mode. Morale is low, and exhaustion high. Cultural defaults include excessive secrecy and mistrust. Over-inflated salaries have distorted the staff structure, and innovation is frequently punished while bureaucracy is rewarded. An unpleasant seam of vindictiveness has also been allowed to fester unchallenged.
We had hoped to have a full interview with Mr Chehade - something he said he was happy to do - but it was squashed by a communications department that views information in terms of risk, and openness in terms of threat. No matter how open and inclusive Mr Chehade wishes to be, he is reliant on his staff to make it happen.
Recent examples just this week in Prague show the uphill struggle. Registries and registrars were stunned when ICANN staff revealed they were paying an unnamed outside company to write EPP code to allow for the transfer of Internet domains - the people in the room are the world's experts on the subject and would likely have done the work better and for free.
Likewise, ICANN announced it would cost $7,000 to $10,000 per registry to run a trademark clearinghouse. What about the economies of scale that come from the fact many companies will be running between 50 and 300 registries, the industry inquired. Staff had decided to assume that every registry was unique. Why?
Having asked the Governmental Advisory Committee (GAC) and the Generic Names Supporting Organization (GNSO) - two of ICANN's main bodies - to review the policy around protecting particular names online, both groups were stunned to find the organization's own lawyers had blacked out the rationale used by the Board to make previous decisions on the issue. When ICANN decides it can't even trust its own advisers, something has gone seriously wrong.
Chehade has close relationship with ICANN COO Akram Atallah. Photo: ICANN
These problems are legion but little more than manifestations of a larger cultural distrust among staff of the outside world. So what will be Mr Chehade's approach?
"The first thing we need to do, and I will do, is I will step outside and look from the outside in and listen and include everyone that needs to be brought into ICANN from the beginning, from day one," he said during his speech. The organization cannot be a "fortress". On management style: "I will manage the staff with a very strong decision-making model from the beginning."
Fortunately for Chehade, the organization's COO (and soon-to-be acting CEO from 1 July until Chehade formally starts work on 1 October) Akram Atallah is an old work colleague. It was Akram that persuaded an initially reluctant Chehade to go for the job, and the two clearly share a healthy working relationship, recognizing each other's skills while occasionally teasing one another. Acting in concert they have a unique opportunity to rebuild ICANN's culture on more positive lines.
Chehade gave an indication for what sort of culture he would like to see. Addressing staff: "I'm going to be hopefully the one that will help each of you be very successful at what you do. I know how hard our staff works and I will take care of giving you the best environment so that you can grow."
In private conversation, Chehade told us that he planned to ask the community to show leadership too. "Many people have told me this week that they are willing to help. So I have told them: ok, I will do that. I will call on you and I will expect you to help."
But only a fool would underestimate the scale of the task ahead. As outgoing CEO Rod Beckstrom noted with disguised sourness: "I want to thank you for the enduring criticism that this organization receives." Mr Chehade will soon find that even with patience and openness and transparency and inclusion that ICANN can be a stubbornly difficult and intransigent animal at times.
What he does at those points will decide whether the adulation received on his first outing was fully justified.