Doing The Right Thing In The Worst Possible Way

It is time to weigh in on what’s been unfolding at the Minnesota Orchestra Association (MOA), the processes used, and what the institution can expect moving forward.

#1 Henson Removed

ADAPTISTRATION-GUY-021After a long and fretful debate, the MOA finally decided to remove Henson and although that was clearly the correct decision to make, they managed to go about it in the worst possible way by extending his tenure through the end of August, 2014. Henson’s presence served as a lightning rod of controversy and negative attention but the MOA compounded the already difficult task of extracting an unpopular CEO by allowing him to remain. This compromise that pleases none complicates the pressing issue of whether or not former music director Osmo Vanska would return and relations with musicians and patrons could begin to heal. Moreover, Henson’s extended presence though the end of the season makes it that much more difficult for the institution to attract a replacement, begin winning donors back, and establishing a healthier environment in the administrative offices. Given the entrenched support for Henson among a small but vocal sect of the board, it is difficult to imagine that the severance package offered wasn’t overly generous and given the potential gains, it would have been better to sweeten the deal even more in order to remove him ASAP. From there, and in an ideal scenario, the institution would have lined up a reliable executive stalwart to serve as an interim CEO in order to keep the plates spinning until a replacement is hired. This would have made the position far more desirable and broadened the potential field of qualified candidates. Instead, the board opted for the hard way.

#2 Board Hardliners Resign

Watching eight key board members resign with such public fanfare over the decision to dismiss a CEO would have been practically unheard of several years ago but now, it seems to be increasingly common. The last mass exodus was in Denver where the former Colorado Symphony Orchestra executive committee and two thirds of the remaining board resigned en masse then waged a publicity campaign against the institution. The really curious part here is just how much venom was delivered by the outgoing MOA board members over an administrative figurehead. The 3/28/14 edition of the Star-Tribune published an article by Graydon Royce that contained an excerpt from a letter written by one of the outgoing board members which sums up this sentiment.

“By encouraging a person to resign — one who had tirelessly helped us work toward sustainability — we send the wrong message to future applicants for that position,” wrote Teri E. Popp, a Wayzata attorney and member of the board’s executive committee, in a letter to board chairman Gordon Sprenger.

Set aside the misguided notions related to placing so much emphasis on a key administrative figure and why that same approach shouldn’t also apply to the other key stakeholders and you see that this spat is likely far from over. If the wounds run deep enough, you can expect the departed board members will actively engage in drawing as much support away from the institution as possible. Add to that any direct support they provided and you’re looking at an immediate drop in revenue unless the current board members manage to parlay this into increased sympathy support in the form of increased gifts from existing donors and attracting any donors on the fringes who may have been waiting for that element to leave. The trick now is if the board exodus ends up producing an uptick in overall unearned revenue, it will only make the departing members lose face and ideally, the institution should be looking to the future with an eye toward reconciliation so they will need to tread careful and avoid any semblance of gloating. Ultimately, the lesson to learn here if you’re a board member is keep things in-house. Yes, resign as a group if you wish, there’s no harm there, but going on a public offensive only makes you look petty and more like a stereotypical fat cat rather than an earnest steward of public trust.

#3 Osmo: Thumbs Up Or Thumbs Down?

The last remnant from the lockout yet to be resolved is whether or not Osmo Vanska will return. Frankly, it doesn’t really matter what title he assumes provided his duties and responsibilities are such that he is the principal figurehead responsible for shaping the orchestra’s artistic vision and musical standards. The reality here is the orchestra’s on-stage compliment is genuinely decimated with many of the key musicians gone for good while others are on the fence about returning. Consequently, there’s no denying that if Vanska returns, he and the musicians will need to embrace the task of rebuilding their artistic standing.

About Drew McManus

"I hear that every time you show up to work with an orchestra, people get fired." Those were the first words out of an executive's mouth after her board chair introduced us. That executive is now a dear colleague and friend but the day that consulting contract began with her orchestra, she was convinced I was a hatchet-man brought in by the board to clean house.

I understand where the trepidation comes from as a great deal of my consulting and technology provider work for arts organizations involves due diligence, separating fact from fiction, interpreting spin, as well as performance review and oversight. So yes, sometimes that work results in one or two individuals "aggressively embracing career change" but far more often than not, it reinforces and clarifies exactly what works and why.

In short, it doesn't matter if you know where all the bodies are buried if you can't keep your own clients out of the ground, and I'm fortunate enough to say that for more than 15 years, I've done exactly that for groups of all budget size from Qatar to Kathmandu.

For fun, I write a daily blog about the orchestra business, provide a platform for arts insiders to speak their mind, keep track of what people in this business get paid, help write a satirical cartoon about orchestra life, hack the arts, and love a good coffee drink.

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11 thoughts on “Doing The Right Thing In The Worst Possible Way”

  1. Good points. It seems to me with the emotional furor surrounding the Henson/Vanska war that the board members who resigned will not move forward against MOA, at least not in a public way. There are so many people here whose nerves are frayed to the breaking point that the backlash would be truly vitriolic if they did, imo.

  2. Hi, Drew,

    After the Minnesota Orchestra concerts last weekend conducted by Osmo Vanska, I believe your last point about the musicians and Vanska committing to rebuilding is already a done deal. The commitment to artistic excellence has not flagged in spite of all the turmoil and pain over the last nearly 18 months. They WANT to work together again.

    If the audience response during those same concerts is any indication, if Vanska returns, the MOA will have considerable community support. Whether that means increased donations is still to be seen, but I’ve heard more than a few stories of people telling the MOA when it’s called for money that they won’t give until Vanska is back and Henson is gone.

    There’s another issue, just as important, that hovers in the background right now and I’ve been trying to pull forward, i.e. governance reform. I think if the MOA Board considered the money raised by membership dues as important, and taking control of their own future rather than having the MN Legislature passing a law that creates a corporation that takes control of the organization by law, they need to really think seriously about changing to a membership governance structure. MN State Rep. Phyllis Kahn has introduced her bill to create that corporation to sell common stock in the MOA to achieve “community ownership.” This not only would wrest control away from the Board and Administration, but also goes against what the founders wanted as it has been written in the Articles of Incorporation, i.e. there will be no capital stock in this organization. Selling stock invites a slow but inexorable transformation to a for-profit company rather than a non-profit performing arts organization. I’ve written about the governance issue extensively at my blog, Eyes on Life, and in the online news outlet, MinnPost.com.

    Gina

  3. Gina Hunter, is it necessarily true that Phyllis Kahn’s plan would invite a slow but inexorable transformation to a for-profit company? I’m not sure Kahn is talking about common and/or capital stock as we generally think of it, as her plan prevents the accumulation of large percentages of stock. No buyer could own more than 5 percent of stock, at least 50 percent of the ownership would be sold to members of the public with rules ensuring that artistic decisions are not made by the board of directors. She modeled her proposal on the ownership of the Green Bay Packers by the city of Green Bay, which seems to work very well. It seems to me that Kahn was onto a way of getting around the problem you cite. If the MOA cannot correct the situation they’ve created, the citizens of Minnesota may very well have to look at proposals like this again. In the meantime, I’ll take a look at your blog to see how you address some of this.

  4. It does seem that an underlying issue to the MO situation is control of the endowment. MOA is likely to tread lightly in order to maintain that, and for that may be a factor in their willingness to let go of Henson and invite Mr. Vanska back.

  5. Do you or any readers know what responsibilities Michael Henson actually has now? Might he just be collecting paychecks at this point? Of course they should have a interim CEO in place for a transition, but at this rate that might happen a year from now.

    Teri Popp’s complaint sounds like General McClellan’s supporters after Lincoln sacked him–he organized a great army, so never mind his insubordination and inability to win a battle or to pursue General Lee. It does help explain how the leadership and voting majority of the board could mulishly pursue a ruinous lockout for 16 months despite the terrible damage they were inflicting on their brand and organization that persists today. Drew’s assessment can be summarized as: They still don’t get it.

  6. His duties and responsibilities should be exactly the same now as before unless they’ve modified his agreement. Granted, the distance between that and actual accountability for an outgoing CEO can sometimes be greater than not.

  7. It seems to me noone in their right mind would have hung onto Mr. Henson once the lockout ended unless there was perceived to be (not that there actually was) a very good reason. My hunch is that he is considered to have prevented MO from going bellyup and is considered to have valuable strategies to protect the endowment that MOA was reluctant to lose. Following that line of thinking, Mr. Henson is now ‘digging his own grave’ so to speak; divulging the secrets of his financial expertise to others on the board and of course, to his replacement.

  8. If making damaging cuts to a successful brand, while intentionally reducing revenue, is “financial expertise,” let’s hope it stays a secret. 990’s reveal the MOA finance committee’s endowment loss of $29M around the time the outgoing CEO started. The fear of public disclosure of details of that embarassing mismanagement, by bankers no less, could be what holds the MOA and their failed CEO together.

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