“Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”
Now in its tenth month, the Minnesota Orchestra labor dispute feels like it’s entering into a new phase. On the one hand, the grind continues as both sides can’t agree on a solution, and an initial attempt to jump start negotiations with noted mediator George Mitchell has stalled. At the same time, it seems clear that things will start to change quickly—the remodeling of Orchestra Hall will soon be complete, and the new season should be starting soon. Plus, Music Director Osmo Vänskä announced he would be forced to resign the first week of September if there was no resolution. All this suggests that the dispute will take on a new character, and greater urgency, in the next few weeks.
This has me wondering about what will happen next. Where is this going?
I am particularly curious as to what the MOA leadership team’s strategy is for the future.
I wonder because the events of the last few weeks have solidified my sense that the management’s strategy to date has been less about reshaping the Orchestra’s business plan or creating long-term sustainability, but simply to win the labor dispute.
I don’t say this lightly—I have no doubt that many of the board members believe in their heart of hearts that their actions, however painful, are absolutely necessary to save the organization from catastrophe. I’m sure many are genuinely inspired by their new business plan, and are excited to implement it as soon as the contract with the musicians can be settled.
But again and again, the management’s actions and statements have looked like nothing more than a desire to play hardball, to win for the sake of winning. They say as much themselves—they rebuffed Mitchell’s attempts to enter mediation and to end the lockout because they would lose “leverage” if they did so (as covered in the Star Tribune, here) .
These are not the actions of a group of people trying to come up with an equitable model for future, or considering the larger impact the lockout is having on the community. It is a group of people fighting to win.
But I think their goal of winning the labor dispute has blinded them to a powerful truth. By remaining resolute and playing hardball, it is possible for them to win this battle. I grant that it’s even possible for them to win the war. But I’ve seen no indication that they can win the subsequent peace. If the musicians were to capitulate tomorrow, take the $5 million in pay cuts and accept the management’s contract as-is…
I ask this without snark, judgment or vindictiveness. I really want to understand what your ultimate victory looks like—what do you value, what you hope to achieve by engaging in this dispute.
I’ve worked in non-profits for a long time; my sense is looking at the long-term, what you would consider a “victory” will have devastating consequences, and I fear there is no strategy for dealing with them. Below, let me outline some looming problems that the board could be left trying to solve—even if they “win” the labor dispute and get their preferred contract with the musicians. And let me say that my ideas are based entirely on my own personal reading of the situation.
1. Osmo. My sense is that he will leave, and this will be a devastating blow to the organization. I don’t want him to leave (have you read how I “met” him? I posted that here). I can also think of many reasons why he might want to stay on… and could be just the leader we would want at the helm for the rebuilding phase. But based on public statements from the board leadership, I think key people in management are more than a little irritated that Osmo has spoken out about the dispute. This suggests that there is not going to be a real push to keep in on in the short-term, and that there will be little enthusiasm for renewing his contract. Plus, he is one of the highest paid people in the organization—if the organization’s top priority is budget cuts, many would no doubt love to bring in a cheaper replacement. How long would any employee stay around in such as scenario, particularly if that person were a hot commodity with many options? Osmo’s loyalty to the Lahti Symphony is legendary and perhaps sets a precedent, and his personality could very well urge him to stay, but….
What does this mean? I suspect a mountain of trouble. Osmo has been a hugely popular figure, and is for many the face of the organization. There would be a great deal of negative publicity and public anger that he left, which would impact ticket sales, donations and the organization’s reputation. The process of replacing him would become a huge drain on institutional time, money and spirit (replacing a Music Director is tough in even the most positive climates). Many candidates would be scared away. And the job search itself would be distorted… the organization would be forced to prioritize a new Music Director skilled at damage control and rebuilding, rather than musical excellence. I also believe that this will lead to factions arising on the board, which will be a huge drain on resources and limit effective governance.
2. Michael Henson. I have to believe that his tenure with the Orchestra will likely come to an end, and soon. I say this with no personal animosity, and certainly not with any inside knowledge. But I believe it is a well-established business principle that a leader who shepherds an organization through a wrenching change is seldom the one needed to lead the aftermath—the skills and the personality needed are simply too different. Even if he emerges as the victor from this labor dispute, earning the gratitude and praise of the board for his steady leadership in a time of crisis, it will be next to impossible to come off impartial or as a team-builder. And since he will have earned the unrelenting hostility of the musicians, his presence would likely lead to a toxic environment for everyone.
What does this mean? I find it impossible to imagine Mr. Henson will stay over the long-term, meaning that on top of everything else, the organization will have to embark on another hiring campaign. Obviously, this will suck up a great deal of institutional time and energy—it would in the best of times. But I imagine both the musicians and the leadership will both be fighting hard for a leader that is sympathetic to them. How is that resolved? Will the new leader ratify the policies of the old, or find ways to mitigate them? This could also divide the board—what qualifications should they emphasize in the job search? I don’t want to be entirely negative here; it is possible with the “reset” achieved the victors will move towards conciliation and work to defuse the situation as rapidly as possible. The board might quickly find the ideal leader to do just this. But it again means that priority will be given to that kind of leader, and not, say, a forward-looking visionary or proven fundraiser.
3. The Musicians. None of the musicians have told me their plans, so again this is speculation on my part. But based on the examples of Detroit and the SPCO, I feel safe in saying that musicians will continue exercising their exit strategy long after the dispute is over. They will continue to audition for other gigs, plan retirements, or take on new careers such as teaching. Already there are some 28 open positions in the 97-member group. Leadership has said publicly that those who can leave, will. Sadly, they are doing so… a trend that will no doubt continue. As a point of comparison, in the wake of the SPCO’s settlement, a third of the ensemble left, leaving it with more bassoons than cellos and string basses combined.
What does this mean? This exodus is a huge artistic blow to the ensemble, obviously. The balance, precision and flexibility of the group—built over many years of hard work—is essentially gone and has to be rebuilt from scratch. It doesn’t matter that the players themselves are all wonderfully talented; the orchestra survives on collective precision with all the parts working together. Similarly, a baseball team can’t rely on players’ individual skills to turn a double play or execute a suicide squeeze—they have to work together. But more than artistic quality, the loss of so many players will be a huge drain on the institution’s resources, as round after round of expensive auditions take place, while simultaneously looking for a new Music Director and President. And who is going to audition for the group in such an environment? The job market might be tight, but people aren’t stupid. Finally, as I’ve argued before, the musicians are the best ambassadors for the organization. They teach across the area, they do outreach, they are advocates… the public loves them. It is this love that causes many people to buy a ticket or make a donation.
4. Donors. This is obviously a diverse group with a wide range of priorities, politics and backgrounds, so it is hard to lump them into one group. Clearly, some supported the lock out and will support you in the aftermath. But I think it’s clear there is a great deal of donor unrest. Some donors, including major ones, have expressed their displeasure publicly. There might be a rush of money from people glad to have the musicians back, but many, many donors feel they’re victims of a bait and switch. Numbers of them have stated publicly they would never have given to the rebuilding fund if they knew what was coming. Many feel your handling and reporting of finances is shady, making you an unwise investment. Many are furious about your treatment of the musicians.
What does this mean? Year in year out, approximately a third of the Orchestra’s income comes from fundraising. My sense is that although you will still get donations, this area is going to take a big hit. It is a long-standing truism that donors don’t make contributions simply because you need money (there are thousands of worthy charities out there), but because you inspire them. They feel a connection, and are passionate advocates about you and your work. I fear the lockout has strained theses feelings thoroughly. What is your plan to re-engage them? How will you prove your transparency? Will donors ever again believe you when you claim you’ve solved the budget crisis? Or when you claim poverty? When scores of people mock your fundraising letter on social media, as many have done regarding your end of the fiscal year appeal, you have a problem.
The problem compounds over time; the basic law of fundraising is that you don’t get major donors ex nihilo, but cultivate them from smaller donors. Most non-profits utilize some type of “moves management” approach, which specifically outlines the steps you need to take in order to move donors from one giving level to another. Breaking this chain of events early on leaves you with dramatically fewer donors to develop.
5. Audiences. Like donors, there is a wide-spread feeling of betrayal in this group. Audience members are furious that their beloved orchestra has been taken from them—no matter what the reason. Sure, some may blame the musicians for their intransigence. But the fact remains that you locked out the musicians out and did so willingly. Plus, you chose to keep the musicians locked out specifically to increase your leverage. How do you spin that? Even if half the number of potential audience blames you, that’s a lot of empty seats at Orchestra Hall. And worse than anger is apathy. After a year of finding other things to do, other ways to spend money, other outlets to enjoy classical music, people will have started to move on.
What does this mean? Your new business model depends on steady—if not increasing—ticket sales. Like donations, earned income amounts to roughly a third of the total revenue of the organization. These goals will be difficult to meet with potential ticket buyers who are still seething about the lockout, or have drifted away from the organization. This means more discounted tickets to attract patrons. Also, a new, much more aggressive marketing program is required… and that will be expensive. I’d imagine you’d need a whole slew of events to build good publicity, which will again take time and money—and depend on buy-in of disgruntled musicians for success. That could be… awkward (and brings to mind the opening scene of Boris Godunov where the Kremlin guards force the peasants to sing a hymn of praise for the newly crowned Czar). Again, I don’t doubt that the first few concerts could be well attended, because people missed the Orchestra. But do you remember how difficult it was for Major League Baseball to bring back the fans after the 1990s strike? It didn’t matter who the fans blamed; they didn’t buy tickets.
6. The Board. Knowing the resources of the current board members, it is entirely possible that they realize that the first year after the lockout will be rough and have vowed to make up the difference from their own pocketbooks. They might be doing so out of real concern for the stability of the organization, or simply to “prove” that their business reset was a success. But that isn’t a long-term strategy… they’ve in fact stated that the new business model is being implemented so they don’t have to keep bailing out the Orchestra.
I also note that by their statements, it’s clear many board members feel disrespected, unappreciated and bullied. These feelings are not going to go away, and will likely burn like slow acid. The situation seems to have instilled a siege mentality that has created a greater uniformity of purpose for the present, but that could change over time. If the other dangers I’ve outlined here come to pass, how long will it take before people start breaking ranks and start to blame each other? If the artistry and reputation of the group suffers, I suspect some longstanding board members will grow resentful of the changes. If the finances don’t improve and the board is asked to supply more and more emergency funds, there will be some who openly wonder if the headache of the last year was worth it. Each board member has his or her own reasons for being involved—their own priorities, goals and expectations. In times of trouble, these differences of opinion will multiply, and recriminations will begin to fly.
What does this mean? The “us vs. them” mentality is dangerous, meaning that they are going to rely more and more on their own views and be less open to others. Their resistance to outside ideas has already cost them support, and makes it less and less likely that outsiders with useful ideas will come forward in the future. It will be increasingly difficult to recruit new members for the board, which again speaks to long-range problems. Even among the board members who stay on, there is an increasing possibility of factionalism that will dilute the board’s ability to govern the organization effectively. With all these pressures, there is a significant chance that the board members will suffer organizational fatigue and leave as soon as they can; in doing so they will take their talents and their checkbooks with them, further harming the Orchestra.
Let me again be clear that I have no inside knowledge of anything regarding this dispute. I also have no crystal ball—these “predictions” are not certain, but rather based on my reading of events, observations and a study of similar labor disputes elsewhere. I could be over-dramatic in my interpretation of these flash points, and certainly welcome discussion of any of them.
But my point is, the management has gone into this dispute saying it has a new plan, a new business model for the Orchestra and this lockout, while unfortunate, is a critical first step in implementing this new model. They also state that this business reset is the only thing that can stave off disaster for the Orchestra. Well, the events of the last 10 months have spiraled out of control; I believe they have radically altered the situation and shattered all your assumptions. What’s your plan? How will you address these looming problems? When all is said and done, what does your ultimate vision of victory look like?