QA Sue Gardner departure March 2013

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Wikimedia Foundation Executive Director Sue Gardner announced she will be stepping down from her position on March 27, 2013 (cf. full announcement on the Wikimedia blog). The following Q&A addresses some questions about her transition and the hiring of a new Executive Director (ED) at the Wikimedia Foundation.

Why is Sue leaving her job as Executive Director?

Sue feels like she's accomplished what she set out to do at the Wikimedia Foundation. Her experiences at the Wikimedia Foundation (including defending the Wikimedia Foundation against industry and governmental censorship, as well as bad legislation, and spending a great deal of time with Internet thinkers, authors, activists and many brilliant Wikimedians) have led her to want to focus directly on preserving the free and open internet.

Based on her experiences over the last six years, Sue believes that although it's obvious that everybody loves Wikipedia, it's also becoming clear that the conditions that enabled its creation (and the creation of other similar projects) are under threat. She believes that if we don't work to defend the public interest online, we risk choking off people's ability to create valuable public service projects such as Wikipedia, and we could even risk the continued existence of Wikipedia itself. That's what she wants to focus on next: the broader context.

What will the process be like for finding a new Executive Director?

We will work with a search firm, although we haven't selected one yet. The Transition Team will be composed of Board members Jan-Bart de Vreede, Kat Walsh, Alice Wiegand and Wikimedia Foundation staff Sue Gardner, Erik Moeller, Geoff Brigham, and Gayle Karen Young (cf. related Board resolution). Jan-Bart is Chair of the Transition Team and Sue is facilitating it on his behalf. It's normal in non-profits for an outgoing Executive Director to help the organization recruit his/her replacement. It is expected that members of the Transition Team will not self-identify as candidates for the role.

Jan-Bart is chair of the Transition Team, and Sue will facilitate it on Jan-Bart's behalf. The Transition Team will make sure that the needs of key stakeholders are surfaced and incorporated into the recruiting process. A process like this will normally take somewhere between four and eight months -- we are currently targeting September as the start date for a new ED.

What if there isn't a new ED by September?

Sue will continue to serve as ED until we have a successor. Her leaving the Wikimedia Foundation is not tied to a particular date: it's tied to the recruitment and successful induction of the next ED. She will remain fully engaged as leader of the Foundation until a new person is in place.

Why are you announcing this now, if nothing will change for six months?

Transparency. Sue has told us that she didn't want to start planning her next steps while still in the ED role, and the Board didn't want to conduct a stealth search for her replacement. It's just honest and fair to tell everyone now. We are aware that the search process may go beyond six months as well, and Sue has confirmed that she will continue to be fully engaged as the leader of the Foundation through that period.

Six months is a long time. Why will it take so long to find a successor?

We don't actually know how long it will take to find a successor to Sue, but we expect it will be at least six months. BoardSource says it normally takes 4–6 months to replace an outgoing non-profit ED, and the Managing Executive Transitions handbook for non-profit Board members says ED searches normally take 6–18 months[1]. The Wikimedia Foundation's experience of recruiting senior executives suggests most roles can be filled within about six months.

What is Sue going to do next?

Sue's told us that she doesn't have her next role lined up. For now, her top priority is running the Wikimedia Foundation, recruiting her successor, and preparing for handover to that person. Then she may write a book. She may decide to found a new non-profit focused on advocating for the free and open internet -- she's not sure.

Will Sue stay in the SF Bay area?

Sue will continue to work in the offices of the Wikimedia Foundation until a new ED is in place. She'll be based in the SF Bay area for the foreseeable future.

Will Sue continue to be involved with the Wikimedia Foundation and/or the Wikimedia movement?

Yes. Sue will make herself available to the new ED to ensure his or her transition into the role is smooth and successful. Afterwards, she will remain in our broad general space (free and open internet), she'll continue editing the English Wikipedia, and she'll always be a Wikimedia supporter and advocate.

How will the Wikimedia community be involved in the hiring of the next ED?

We don't know yet: the process for recruiting the next ED hasn't yet been figured out. It's likely though that we will figure out some way to expose serious candidates to the Wikimedia community and vice versa: it just seems to make sense. The Wikimedia Foundation often finds ways to do that for key senior roles: for example, community involvement was built into the hiring of the Chief Talent and Culture Officer, the General Counsel, the Chief of Finance and Administration, and other senior positions.

Will Sue be offered a position as an Advisory Board member or Trustee?

Sue and the Board haven't talked about it. It's possible, but at this point we are all focused more on building the plan for finding a successor to Sue.

It seems odd to announce Sue is leaving before there is a solid plan for finding a successor. Often, organizations will announce their CEO is leaving at the same time as they announce the successor, or sometimes they will put in place an interim CEO during the recruitment process. Why are you handling it this way?

We're an honest and transparent organization, so we want our community (including volunteers, donors and other stakeholders) to be in the loop as important decisions play out. We could have handled this in secrecy, for example by conducting a quiet, non-public search. But there's no benefit to that. A public, open search is consistent with our values and, we think, will surface the best candidates for the job. There's no need for an interim CEO because the Wikimedia Foundation trusts Sue to continue handling the job the way she always has: putting the needs of the Wikimedia Foundation first while she is its ED, and responsibly leading the organization.

Does this announcement signal trouble at the Wikimedia Foundation? Is there any dispute between Sue and the Board, or between Sue and anyone at the Wikimedia Foundation?

No. What we're saying in these announcements is exactly true. Sue feels called upon to make a new and different contribution to the support of the free and open internet. The Board and the Foundation are going to miss her, and would have been happy if she had chosen to stay, but we all respect her decision. We all share the same values and are working towards the same basic goals: what's changing here is the role that Sue, personally, will play in that general work.

What kind of person does the Wikimedia Foundation expect to recruit as its next ED?

The basics of the job remain the same: that is to say, the specific job description may shift, but the role and its responsibilities will be fundamentally the same. At this point, we don't know exactly what kind of person we aim to recruit. The Wikimedia Foundation is an unusual organization: it's an engineering organization which also does grantmaking, it operates the number-five most-popular site in the world, it's a US-based non-profit, and it works in partnership with a global network of volunteers in a way that is highly collaborative and consultative. There is no career path or role that makes running the Wikimedia Foundation a person's obvious next step. That means we will likely cast a wide net, and consider a broad range of types of people. Values and leadership style and general orientation will be important, as will various forms of experience and hard skills. The Transition Team will be working through prioritizing what it feels the organization needs most, including consultation with key stakeholders, throughout the recruitment process.

What is the earliest date you expect you might have a new ED in place?

We can't imagine having a new person in place anytime before late summer. We're not the kind of organization that would hire someone quickly, after only a few conversations with a small number of people. We want to conduct a full, thorough search. The Wikimedia Foundation operates in a complex stakeholder environment and we're an unusual organization: we want to make sure the person we hire is a good fit for our particular circumstances.

Who will make the decision about who gets hired?

The full Board will vote on who the next Executive Director will be. The purpose of the Transition Team is to manage the process and make a recommendation to the Board. The final decision rests with the Board.

What should people do if they're potentially interested in the role?

Once the job description is refreshed and refined, it will be posted on the Wikimedia Foundation site. At that point, we will tell people who to reach out to if they're interested in talking about the role.

  1. Tebbe, Don (2008). Chief executive transitions : how to hire and support a nonprofit CEO. BoardSource.