Mozilla and leadership: Rethinking the CEO

Last week John Lily – CEO of Mozilla – announced he will be stepping down to take a job at Greylock, a venture capital firm. I’ve only met John twice, and both times he was generous with both his time and willingness to engage some of my thoughts and (many) questions. I know he is a huge asset to Mozilla and has done a great deal to help mature the organization.

With the Mozilla now planning a CEO succession it seems like an opportune time to raise an idea that first came to me a few months ago: Should Mozilla rename the role of CEO?

Why change the title? My interest is that the title communicate the message of Mozilla mission and its method. CEO’s are usually (although, admittedly not exclusively) associated with traditional companies, and to a lesser degree, hierarchical decision making structures. Indeed, if asked what words I were to associate with the CEO I think “authority,” “command” and “hierarchy” would be among the top to jump into my mind.

Mozilla has never been, and I hope never will be, a traditional software company. It is not profit driven but mission driven – its goal is to keep the web open in part by providing a competitive, open standards compliant web-browser. More importantly, the Mozilla models depends not on a large staff to succeed, but on a community of volunteers whose donations of time and code are coordinated by a (relatively) small staff.

So what do I think the core values the titles of Mozilla’s leadership needs to communicate? I think authority and command are definitely part of the mix. Ultimately the senior leadership of Mozilla needs to make difficult strategic and management choices, just like a CEO. But one of the things that I think makes the role so difficult (and different) is that it requires other key attributes as well, including “engagement,” “fun,” and “community.” Let’s face it, if your capacity to create software depends on a volunteer community, that community had better be fun, engaging and with – ideally – low transaction costs.

None of this, I think, is new. Mitchell Baker, Mozilla’s chairman and Lily’s predecessor, retains the title she popularly used while in her previous job: Chief Lizard Wrangler (also the name of her blog). That title says it all: Fun, community-oriented, hints at decision-making that is consultative, but still a dose of authority…

So, can we find a new title that reflects these values? I know at Mozilla solutions are prized above observations but I’ll confess I’m a little short on suggestion (I actually love Chief Lizard Wrangler and wonder if that should not be the title). Community Director (as opposed to Executive Director) has come to mind. I’m ultimately not attached to a given solution, I just believe it is important that the title be consistent with the spirit and values of the Mozilla project. I know that the leadership and staff have a lot of its plate and that this is not the most critical issue, but I wanted to put the thought out there nonetheless as symbols such as these matter, I believe especially in mission driven organizations.

7 thoughts on “Mozilla and leadership: Rethinking the CEO

  1. sabret00the

    I think you’re over-thinking things. It doesn’t matter what the Job Title is, it’s about the person that fills it. If Lily was as great as the blogesphere seem to think, then surely that proves that the Job Title of CEO really doesn’t matter. After all, whoever gets the job, when it’s time to move on, I’m sure they’ll edit their CV to say CEO or MD rather than Chief Tiger Tamer.

    Reply
  2. Caseyd

    the title of CEO is one of the few things which will open doors and get respect from the rest of the world.

    Reply
  3. Majken "Lucy" Connor

    Interesting suggestion. For me the biggest difference between a traditional CEO and the leader of Mozilla is that at Mozilla you have a lot more raw resources. There'll be really smart people who may be missing something from their realm of experience compared to someone in a similar role at a traditional company. I think it's really important for the CEO at Mozilla to consider nurturing these resources as a major responsibility. I don't have any specific ideas for a new title myself, but it makes me think of a Mr. Miyagi or a Yoda. Maybe inspiration can be drawn from that, or from education.

    Reply
  4. Robert Kaiser

    From what I'm seeing, this CEO role is actuall not a community position but a Firefox Corporation one (yes, that name doesn't exist, but that part of Mozilla often works as such). Of course, this is no traditional corporation either, and fun names are always nice in our geek environment. The Chief Lizard Wrangler title still belongs to Mitchell as she's chairman of the whole of Mozilla (the lizard), not jut the Firefox branch. This CEO belongs to the Firefox branch, though, so it should be in line with that. As Firefox is the Red Panda, perhaps a Big Panda Caretaker or such?

    Reply
  5. Robert Kaiser

    From what I'm seeing, this CEO role is actuall not a community position but a Firefox Corporation one (yes, that name doesn't exist, but that part of Mozilla often works as such). Of course, this is no traditional corporation either, and fun names are always nice in our geek environment. The Chief Lizard Wrangler title still belongs to Mitchell as she's chairman of the whole of Mozilla (the lizard), not jut the Firefox branch. This CEO belongs to the Firefox branch, though, so it should be in line with that. As Firefox is the Red Panda, perhaps a Big Panda Caretaker or such?

    Reply

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