After a series of closed-door meetings this week by the Wikimedia Foundation's Board of Trustees, WMF staffers widely believe that the Board is deciding the fate of executive director Lila Tretikov.
Tretikov's tumultuous tenure has seen a number of dramatic events in recent months, including the dismissal of community-selected Board of Trustees member James Heilman (Doc James); the appointment of trustee Arnnon Geshuri, and his resignation following a community outcry; and the controversy around a Knight Foundation grant for a project called "Knowledge Engine", which at one point may have been intended to be a competitor with Google.
While at least the first two issues could be attributed to the Board's political mistakes, WMF staffers widely attribute a series of high-profile employee departures from the WMF to issues with Tretikov's leadership. A timeline of events at the WMF was recently created by GorillaWarfare, illustrating many instances of staff turmoil, including a number of incidents that were not publicly known outside WMF circles.
Staff concerns about Tretikov came to a head at a remarkable all-staff meeting last November 9, details of which are only now becoming public. An apologetic Tretikov, flanked by Jimmy Wales and Board chair Patricio Lorente, confronted the assembled WMF staffers and pledged to improve communication and leadership. Tretikov told them, in part,
First of all, I owe you all an apology, for not seeing this earlier, and it started percolating few weeks ago when some people started telling me some of the problems they were seeing. So, I'm really, really sorry for anything that I've said or done that have made you feel devalued in any respect, or disrespected or not listened to. It was not at all my intent. I deeply believe that, and I think I've said that, or somehow I'm failing to communicate it.
A dramatic question and answer session followed, but many WMF employees seemed bewildered by what resembled a moment of truth, and were unsure about the circumstances that had prompted it. One staffer later termed it a "show trial" of Tretikov, while others vented about perceived failures of leadership during the meeting itself. One prominent staffer, Asaf Bartov (Asaf (WMF)), directly accused Tretikov of lying about the Knowledge Engine, which has been a particular flashpoint in conflicts between Tretikov and WMF staff.
Many staffers had little information about the project, despite the fact that the WMF was asking for millions of dollars from the Knight Foundation to implement it. Heilman told the Signpost that he and fellow Board member Dariusz Jemielniak had to fight a reluctant Tretikov and other Board members to receive key documents about the Knowledge Engine. Regarding this accusation leveled at Tretikov, Bartov later wrote on Facebook:
It was only after staff (outside the Discovery team, *who were also in the dark* regarding the grant and what was written in it) began asking persistent questions on the staff-wide mailing list about the mysterious and undefined "Knowledge Engine" that Lila shared any information at all.
The issue of Tretikov's management and leadership style was intended to be addressed by the appointment of Steve Scheier as a management coach in November. Scheier worked at Apple in the 1980s with Guy Kawasaki, a member of the Board of Trustees who has been widely seen as sympathetic to Tretikov. Kawasaki provided a blurb for Scheier's 2015 book Do More Good. Better. Using the Power of Decision Clarity® to Mobilize the Talent of your Nonprofit Team, stating "This book removed the scales from my eyes and taught me that nonprofits are a different beast—in distribution of power, relationships with constituencies, and employee recruitment and retention. If you want to optimize the leadership of a nonprofit, this is the hands-on guide to help you succeed."
Guy Kawasaki, trustee, appointed April 13, 2015 – December 31, 2016
Scheier's experience as a management coach seemed ideal to address the situation, but WMF staffers raised questions about what exactly his job was and, later on, whether or not he was still working with Tretikov. In an email to all staffers last week, she wrote that she was still meeting with him and had an upcoming appointment scheduled; a staffer responded by producing an email from Scheier that said he was no longer working for the WMF. Tretikov responded: "Ok I am confused now too". After subsequent communication with Scheier, Tretikov called it a "misunderstanding" between her and Scheier and that he would be helping her work on "strategic organizational goals". These included "clarifying the nature of our organization going forward", a phrase that several staffers questioned.
In earlier months, staff voiced fears of retaliation and described a "culture of fear" at the WMF, such as a February 1 comment to Tretikov by Community Tech developer Frances Hocutt: "I hear my colleagues' concerns and see some of them being censured for speaking in ways that I have found sharply critical but still fundamentally honest and civil, and I worry that someday I will be the one who is suddenly found to have stepped over lines which were previously invisible or unspoken."
The depth of these problems was revealed in an anonymous staff survey held in late November. As the Signpostrevealed, the survey indicated that trust levels were abysmally low. Just 10% of staff indicated that they had confidence in the WMF's senior leadership, a number widely interpreted as a direct reflection on Tretikov. An even lower 7% of staffers indicated that those senior leaders "keep people informed about what is happening."
In recent weeks, staffers have spoken out more directly and brazenly, responding to Tretikov and even contradicting her directly both in public and private. They appear to have been galvanized by a number of recent events, most notably the resignations of Luis Villa, senior director of Community Engagement, and Siko Bouterse, director of Community Resources—the most recent in a long line of staff departures and medical leaves from the WMF over the past two years, triggering particularly strong responses.
A February 18 message from Ido Ivri also prompted a number of frank responses from current and former WMF employees and community members. Ivri, a board member of Wikimedia Israel, wrote:
I’m concerned because it’s evident that the Foundation is undergoing a deep, strategic change. But this change is not accompanied by the required transparency, honesty and accountability required by the Foundation in order to truly transform in a way that's beneficial for the organization and its community.
While WMF staffers are convinced that Tretikov's departure is imminent, staff resignations have continued amid concerns about the long-term future of the Foundation and the ability of the Board to address these issues. The latest departure, announced Tuesday, is that of Research Analyst Oliver Keyes (Ironholds). Although he used much sterner language in an internal email seen by the Signpost, Keyes publicly stated that "While I appreciate that the Board of Trustees may take steps to rectify the situation, I have no confidence in their ability to effectively do so given their failure to solve for the problem until it became a publicity issue as well as a staff complaint."
Update: On February 25, Tretikov announced her resignation, effective March 31, 2016. In her resignation statement, Tretikov said, "I will support the process of identifying our new leadership in every way that I can, and offer my assistance to the Board as they conduct their search for my successor. It has been an honor to serve and to contribute to our great movement." The Board of Trustees announced their acceptance of her resignation.
The WMF issued an official statement to The Next Web, which we have reprinted below in full:
On Thursday, February 25, Lila Tretikov announced she will step down from her role as Executive Director of the Wikimedia Foundation.
“I am both inspired by, and proud of, the many great things we have all accomplished at the Foundation over the last two years, most significantly reversing the loss of our editorial community,” Lila wrote in her email to staff and community. “I would like to thank our Board of Trustees and Advisors, our Foundation staff, as well as the many outstanding community members for their support and encouragement on this journey. I remain passionate about the value and potential of open knowledge and Wikimedia to change the world.”
The Wikimedia Foundation Board of Trustees is working to develop a transition plan that will include appointing interim leadership and initiating the search for a new Executive Director. Lila’s last day will be March 31, 2016.
Lila joined as Executive Director in May 2014 to support the maturation of the Wikimedia Foundation and focus the organization on the needs of its community and users. During this time, the organization has made real progress in these areas. The Foundation has improved organizational performance and product development, released new native apps, editor translation and content quality assessment tools. Many talented members of our staff and community contributed to these accomplishments, and we want to recognize their hard work and commitment to our mission.
“These changes are in motion and I move on with confidence that the Foundation can meet new challenges in a changing environment” said Lila, “I remain passionate about the value and potential of open knowledge to change the world and our ability to continue to lead this change.”
Since it started fifteen years ago, Wikipedia has grown into one of the world’s most important knowledge resources, thanks to the efforts of hundreds of thousands of volunteers around the world. The focus of the Wikimedia Foundation has always been to support that community and the Wikimedia projects, and to help make free knowledge available for the world.
“The Wikimedia’s vision is clear: a world in which every single person can share in the sum of all knowledge. Even as we go through changes, our focus remains on this vision,” said Patricio Lorente, Chair of the Wikimedia Foundation Board of Trustees. “The Wikimedia Foundation has strong leadership and a talented staff devoted to this vision and our movement’s core values. They will continue to support the Wikimedia projects and community, and we are confident that we are well positioned to move forward at this time. We thank Lila for her service and wish her the best in her future endeavors.”
Lila will remain engaged with the Wikimedia Foundation to support the transition process.