In a recent interview with Minnesota Public Radio, the Minnesota Orchestra’s incoming Board Chair Gordon Sprenger made a series of highly complimentary remarks about President Michael Henson, particularly regarding Henson’s actions to bring the Orchestra to where it is today. This has raised some concerns for me, and as a result I offer the following open letter.
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Dear Mr. Sprenger,
Congratulations on your new role as Board Chair! I speak for many when I say we are delighted to meet you, and look forward to working with you to help the Minnesota Orchestra heal from this divisive labor dispute. Thank you for setting a tone of reconciliation, positive energy and hopefulness, as these elements will be necessary for the organization as it begins its long journey of healing.
I’m sure you’ve received a great many suggestions and tips from everyone involved in this ugly dispute, telling you what course to plan as we collectively move ahead. In that spirit, let me offer my own bit of advice:
Please remove Michael Henson as President and CEO.
I do not suggest this out of any desire to spike the ball, salt the earth, or revel in triumph. I do not suggest this out of any personal vindictiveness toward Henson. And I certainly do not suggest this simply as a tactic to bring back Osmo Vänskä—this important step must be taken regardless of what Osmo decides to do.
On the contrary, I firmly believe that the decision to remove Michael Henson from power is an important business step that must be taken for the long-range security of the Minnesota Orchestra. Without taking this step, and doing so decisively, the organization will continue to sputter in a downward death spiral.
Let me explain.
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To begin, let me make a few general observations.
Do we still need a turnaround expert after the turnaround? It is a well-established business truism that the person who oversees a wrenching transformation of an organization is rarely the person you want to lead the aftermath—the skill set and personality type required for these two positions are vastly different. Take the case of Crystal Sugar, an ugly dispute that involved some of the same personnel as the Minnesota Orchestra dispute, and was fought over similar issues. Less than a year later the CEO that served as the lead negotiator, Joe Talley, left the company. Interestingly, he left with little more than two weeks’ notice, and an anemic response from the company that wished him well “in his future pursuits” (without explaining what these “pursuits” actually were).
Michael Henson, like Crystal Sugar’s Joe Talley, was essentially a turnaround expert. This type of leader fulfills a very specific role the business world… and one that is no longer needed here. Whatever anyone thinks of the lockout and the resulting new contract, they are now done and behind us. Resolved. What is needed now is a builder—someone who can improve morale, build rapport between all stakeholders, reestablish the brand and reengage the public. Those are the reasons you were brought it to replace Jon Campbell as the new Board Chair. Those are not, however, Henson’s primary skills.
His ideas caused problems in the first place. As Albert Einstein said, “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” By its own accounts, the Orchestra experienced significant challenges over the past decade, including a number of financial difficulties. The audience advocacy group Save Our Symphony Minnesota (SOS MN) completed its own analysis of the Orchestra’s publicly-available financial documents and concurred that there have indeed been fiscal problems, although its analysis suggested that the Minnesota Orchestral Association (MOA) was not forthcoming about the nature of the difficulties or their ultimate cause. Those quibbles aside, everyone is in agreement that the problems have been very real. Moreover, we’ve seen that the Orchestra has been experiencing a growing disconnect with the community, along with ongoing issues of governance. As I’ve said previously, the lockout wasn’t the start of the Orchestra’s problems; rather, the lockout was the result of much larger problems within the organization.
This is key—although Michael Henson may not have been personally responsible for everything that happened, it is obvious he’s connected to most of the difficulties over the last seven years. As the CEO, there’s simply no way he can disassociate himself with them.
So… why keep him on? Why rely on him to solve the problems he helped create? If he was truly the right man for the job, wouldn’t he have solved these issues before now?
By his own standards, he failed. The above points bring up another key issue. He failed in his attempt to turnaround the organization. There is no other way to say this. He, in conjunction with the previous board leaders, stated unequivocally that the Orchestra’s survival depended on dropping the organizational budget from around $30 million to around $25 million. He went on to argue that the only way that could happen was if the organization cut $5 million from the musicians’ payroll, and implemented hundreds of changes to the basic work agreement to help save money. Again and again, this was listed as a non-negotiable offer, and a matter of basic survival.
In the end, however, the final settlement looked quite different. As I had no use for the MOA’s ridiculous demands, I can’t say I was sad about this turn of events. But the final deal is surprising because it undercuts the entire rationale of the lockout. So… the $5 million payroll cut wasn’t all that critical to the survival of the organization? Many have commented that the MOA could probably have gotten that same deal over a year ago, if it had actually tried honest negotiations. But because the MOA didn’t do so, it inflicted extraordinary damage upon itself, including the loss of key musicians, the music director, a recording contract and invitations from prestigious music festivals. Despite all this, it still agreed to terms that made light of all the dire warnings it had made over the last year and a half.
Michael Henson isn’t exclusively to blame for this, but he cannot disassociate himself from it either. It seems clear that the primary reason he was hired in the first place was to oversee a business model “reset,” and to completely reshape the organization. Well, by his own standards, and the standards of the organization, he failed in the one thing that was hired to do. In most instances, that leads to termination.
His grand vision was rejected. Related to the above point, it is clear that the new vision Henson was hired to implement has been roundly rejected. His notion of replacing “heavy” classical music with pops concerts, and turning Orchestra Hall into a venue for corporate functions stirred anger across the community. Perhaps this isn’t widely discussed in the boardroom, but the strategic plan Michael Henson championed has been mocked by arts writers, deconstructed in the press, and widely criticized by arts managers across the country. The City of Minneapolis, which holds the lease for Orchestra Hall, was so outraged by this new business model that it came within a hair’s breadth of taking over the Hall; it argued that the MOA was out of compliance with its agreement to run Orchestra Hall as a center for the performing arts in general, and classical music in particular. The MOA experienced such pushback about removing the words “classical music” or “orchestral music” from the mission statement that it had to reinstate them. And, this new plan was rendered moot by the lockout, which made it mathematically impossible to achieve the plan’s goals or metrics.
Again, the plan that Michael Henson developed and tried to implement has been rebuffed. It is now completely defunct and for the most part unsalvageable. There is no other way to look at this except as a colossal failure.
So let me recap the previous points. Michael Henson was hired specifically to do a job—to transform the orchestra. He failed in his attempt. His vision was repudiated. So why should he lead the aftermath? The Orchestra no longer needs a turnaround expert, it needs a builder. Is it fair to ask him to draw up a new strategic plan that is completely outside his comfort zone? Is it wise to ask him to draw up a new plan when his first was such a dud?
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By themselves, these points would strongly suggest that Michael Henson is not the person that should lead the Orchestra into the future. But there are specific points that suggest he cannot be effective in his role, too. Let me explain:
“Bonusgate.” This was a crippling public relations disaster for Michael Henson, which seriously undercut the organization’s credibility as a whole. The fact that he received enormous cash bonuses, while laying off workers and demanding the musicians take deep pay cuts because of the organization’s fiscal difficulties, was indefensible. When those revelations came to light, it was almost impossible for outside observers to see the labor dispute as anything but an attempt to break the union. It wasn’t just that “bonusgate” made Henson a lightning rod for public discontent… it completely hamstrung him for leading the organization in the future. I can’t imagine anyone within the organization will take him seriously when he announces there have to be cuts or shared sacrifices. How can he be an effective leader as a result?
And no, it doesn’t help that he’s taking a “solidarity” pay cut right now—for most, that move only serves as a reminder that his base of pay is far above that of the musicians. If he really wanted to display solidarity with the musicians, he would immediately refund the bonuses, give back his entire salary from the past year, and then agree to take a 15% cut.
Internet Domains. This is an interesting point, and one that marked the turning point in public perception of Henson and the MOA leadership. In short, months prior to the lockout, the administration bought up a whole slew of Internet domain names that contained the words “save” and “Minnesota Orchestra.” On the one hand, many people can understand this as a tactical move during a labor dispute. But the fact that it happened months prior to the lockout made it clear that the lockout was a pre-determined strategy. And more than that, it felt smarmy. After the revelations about “domaingate,” it was no longer possible for Michael Henson to say that he “regretted” the labor dispute had come to this or that he was “saddened” by the necessity for a lockout. No, it was clear that the whole thing was planned, and that the MOA was fighting to win at all costs.
All this makes it terribly difficult for him to pivot now and present himself as a healer who can unify the organization
Legislative hearings. Michael Henson went before state lawmakers and gave inaccurate information about the Orchestra. In fact, “inaccurate” may be too polite. He presented a view of the organization, its goals, and its financial resources that were fundamentally untrue. And he knew them to be untrue. Board documents show that his pre-established goal was to convince lawmakers that the Orchestra was in good financial shape in order to secure bonds for the reconstruction of Orchestra Hall.
Unfortunately for Henson and the MOA, lawmakers found out this testimony was a sham.
As a result, Michael Henson has lost the trust and respect of the state’s government. Many legislators, in fact, are still outraged and feel that Henson personally lied to them under oath. At least 10 lawmakers called him out by name and demanded his immediate resignation. Lawmakers’ ire at being deceived has polluted all other dealings with the organization, and many officials made it clear that Henson’s removal is a necessary step toward repairing relations with the government.
I can’t fathom how you get around this.
City of Minneapolis report. Related to this is the important point that Henson has likewise infuriated the City of Minneapolis. The city was hit hard by the dispute, losing an estimated $2.9 million in income due to the lockout. As the leaseholder of Orchestra Hall, it demanded a report about the Orchestra’s past and projected activities. Michael Henson responded with a letter under his own name that was so full of half-truths, lazy claims, and thinly-veiled deceptions that the city was outraged, and immediately demanded a follow up report. That report was little better, and the city began taking steps to revoke the MOA’s lease and take control of Orchestra Hall. Again, the city officials blame Michael Henson not just for the underlying mismanagement, but for the audacious misinformation that he presented. They still feel as if he personally tried to pull a fast one on them.
Again, I don’t know how you get around this.
He didn’t manage things well during the lockout. One of the other problems with Michael Henson’s leadership is that he wasn’t an effective leader during the lockout. It was astonishing that he never took control of the MOA’s message. He spoke infrequently and made almost no attempt to persuade the public of his points. Yes, he gave a couple of interviews; but if he was trying to truly transform the organization, and if he was convinced that his plan was the only way to save it from collapse, he should have been much, much more visible. He should have encouraged debate, not hidden from it. He should have been making his pitch to lawmakers, instead of giving them dubious testimony. His arguments never resonated because he was a poor advocate of them. Does that bode well for him being a strong communicator in the future?
But another point. At the Orchestra’s annual meeting in December, it was revealed that the organization spent $13 million over the course of the fiscal year without presenting a single concert. This was incredibly damaging, and raised serious questions about organizational competence. Where did all that money go? Do donors approve of their contributions being spent on $13 million worth of administrative overhead? This revelation was highly damaging to management’s cause.
In short, he hasn’t displayed much command of the situation over the last year and a half. Why believe that he will do so now?
Hostility from the musicians. For the reasons I’ve outlined above and more, Michael Henson has completely lost the respect of the musicians. And I don’t blame them. Maybe that’s unfair, but the truth remains that Henson is singularly unqualified to rebuild ties to the musicians. With their new contract, they are here for at least three years, and… well, they are the product. They’re more important to the long-term survival of the organization than he is. Is it worth it to continue to degrade the organization’s product and lose audiences just to keep him around?
Complete lack of outside support. I’ve been struck that, to my knowledge, no one from outside the MOA’s leadership has made a public statement of support for Henson, his plan or his actions. Even through the end of the lockout, the Orchestra’s website had few links to letters or articles supporting their position, and all the links they did have came from board members or senior staff.
On the contrary, many outside individuals and groups have spoken up against the actions of the MOA—and Michael Henson in particular. Attorney Lee Henderson was one of the most visible critics of Henson, but there were also criticisms from arts leaders across the country including Michael Kaiser and Alan Fletcher. More than that, the public itself has weighed in—it is clear that many audience members and donors have demanded his removal before they will again trust the Orchestra. In fact, irritation about Henson and his new direction for the Orchestra gave birth to audience advocacy groups such as SOS MN.
There’s no other way to say this—the community has no faith in him. I’m not sure how he will be successful, then, in trying to rebuild public trust.
Timing. Let me say one last thing that brings all these points together. I think I’ve laid out in clear terms why Michael Henson lacks the vision to move the Orchestra forward, the skills to create a new strategic plan, or credibility necessary to unify the organization. He has, for clear and specific reasons, lost the trust of musicians, lawmakers and the public at large. He is not the person for the job.
As a result, it makes more sense to just cut him loose now, while his leaving could do the organization some good.
Let me explain.
The very act of removing Henson will help the organization regain trust with the all the aggrieved stakeholders. Many, in fact, have said they will not trust the organization again until it takes this step. Removing him would be a dramatic gesture that would bring people together, and make outside groups more likely to work with you.
And let’s face it… you need the support of all these groups if you are to flourish. The board members have said in no uncertain terms they are tired of bailing out the Orchestra year after year. Fair enough. That means the “slack,” so to speak, has to be picked up by the community as a whole. And as I’ve said, the community won’t be supportive if Henson is around.
So why wait?
Holding off, even a few months, would be a wasted opportunity; if done later, this exact same gesture will bring in far fewer rewards. Wounds will continue to fester, and the public irritation will continue to simmer, making it that much harder to bring everyone together. If Henson leaves later, particularly as a result from ongoing pressure, there will be a sense that the MOA never really “got it,” doesn’t truly want to build fences, and still doesn’t realize how precarious its position really is. It will be that much more difficult to rebuild trust.
Plus, the Orchestra needs to very quickly create a new strategic plan focused on what it wants to do, and how it wants to go about doing it. As I said, Henson isn’t the best person to lead this charge… so why not bring in someone else who is? And why not do so now, so this person can get to work right away? There is no time to lose.
Plus, there are several key positions on the staff that are vacant. Instead of Michael Henson filling them, why not allow a new CEO to build the staff he or she wants to implement this new vision?
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Mr. Sprenger, I am sorry to report that Michael Henson is a net liability for the Minnesota Orchestra. Regardless of the gaiety surrounding the upcoming concerts. Regardless of whether or not Osmo chooses to return, Michael Henson is not the leader the Minnesota Orchestra needs right now.
He needs to go, and to go sooner rather than later.
I hope you can make the right choice, and help the organization you clearly love to move forward again.