How did things go so horribly wrong? A detailed analysis of a failure in not-for-profit leadership
Yes. Michael Murphy is out. We don’t know exactly how or exactly why. We do know that the situation at Shea’s careened horribly out of control. But did this really need to happen? The story that unfolded at Shea’s in recent months seems to be as much about the nature of not-for-profit governance as it is about creating a toxic work environment.
The staff at Shea's was highly regarded and had worked to build the institution to national prominence; some employees have worked at Shea's through two and three CEOs. It seems to me that if the Shea’s board of trustees had responded earlier and faster, matters might have been remedied long ago, before anyone had left in despair, and before anyone had been fired. Murphy could have adjusted his leadership style, or he could have gone on to other pursuits quietly, with his reputation intact. That’s not what happened.
Six years ago, we were lucky enough to attract a charismatic man with an impressive resume and an inspiring outlook to succeed Anthony Conte as president of Shea’s, one of the crown jewels in Buffalo’s cultural landscape. He was a smart and engaging guy, well-liked across the cultural sector, who made quick connections to the local theater community, and was always willing to lend a hand or share resources.
Shea’s Broadway series already boasted the number one single week in the American Theater, and Shea’s Smith Theatre and Shea’s 710 were diamonds in the rough, just ready for someone with vision and talent to mold them. In addition to being an experienced manager, unlike his popular predecessor, he was also a man of the theater, with the background needed to take on this new challenge. Straight from a long and successful stint as managing director of the prestigious Old Globe Theatre in San Diego, Michael G. Murphy was just the person we needed.
Everything seemed to be going according to plan. Then, this summer, it all started to unravel, as stories of an abusive leadership style and toxic work environment began to circulate. When the end came on Friday, October 21, 2022, the announcement was succinct and abrupt. Murphy was not merely leaving Shea’s; he was already gone.
Shea’s Performing Arts Center Board of Trustees today announced that Michael G. Murphy is no longer its president. Murphy led Western New York’s premier musical theater venue for six years. The board will form a committee to open a national search for Murphy’s successor. The board also plans to announce the addition of several new trustees following its annual meeting Oct. 29.
Typically, an announcement of this nature includes an expression of gratitude, like “We thank Michael for his six years of dedicated service.” There was none.
Typically, an announcement of this nature includes a litany of the departing employee’s accomplishments. There was no effusive enumeration of “box office records broken,” or “ground-breaking programming,” or “expanded connections to the community.” Murphy was simply gone.
The rest of the press release was filler – mention of upcoming shows in the M&T Broadway series, the booking of Jerry Seinfeld, and John Mellencamp. Gratitude was reserved for Shea’s patrons and sponsors, “for their loyalty and patience during this challenging time of transition.” If no thanks were extended to Murphy, certainly none was offered to the staff members who had sustained the institution through covid, and while enduring Murphy’s reportedly abusive leadership.
The announcement came after weeks of headlines and tumult this summer, which, once September rolled round, had given over to silence and seeming stagnation. The perpetual question in the arts community was, “What’s happening at Shea’s?”
There were rumors of continued work with a human resource management consultant and tales of pressure being exerted behind the scenes by former board members and funders. Nothing, however, could be substantiated.
The press and the community were familiar with getting the silent treatment from Shea’s, where the staff reportedly lived under a cloud of intimidation, and the board was apparently unaccustomed to being held accountable by anyone, much less by their perceived inferiors. The trustees diminished the seriousness of staff complaints, and claimed to be taking matters seriously, while their actions, instead, suggested an effort to be as dismissive as possible. They dodged the press for weeks, even expressing irritation that the public was taking interest in what was happening behind closed doors at the not-for-profit institution.
The board finally met with the staff on August 25th to announce that they had decided, after their own investigation, that Murphy would be staying.
Shea's board chairman, Randall K. Best, president of Gernatt Asphalt Products, began the meeting by stating that they would take no questions. What followed was pure disaster, as the staff was incredulous that their concerns had not been taken seriously. They perceived that the people to whom they had turned for help did not have their best interests in mind and had, arguably, become their enemy. General manager Bill Patti, who had been responsible to funnel anonymous complaints to the board, was vocal at the meeting, and was fired the next day.
With this development, any question of why employees might feel intimidated seemed grotesquely disingenuous, and, in the eyes of the staff, any avenue to restart Murphy’s leadership was gone. The toxicity of the environment seemed undeniable, and that toxicity seemed to extend to the board of trustees.
Possibly realizing that they had lost control of the narrative, on September 3, Best and fellow trustee Jonathan Dandes finally sat down with Mark Sommer of the Buffalo News. Remarkably, this interview turned out to be more damning than the board’s previous silence. In response to Sommer’s questions, Best, in particular, revealed a shockingly callous attitude toward the allegation of an abusive work environment, and an astonishingly inappropriate attitude toward not-for-profit leadership.
Best admitted that Murphy had anger issues, but dismissed that detail casually:
‘Michael is the first to admit that he can sometimes be short with people," Best said. "But Michael has promised us, and we believe him, that he is going to work very hard to change his style."
Best insisted that the behavior that had resulted in near mutiny and the eventual departure of 40 percent of the Shea’s staff, "didn't rise to the level of requiring or suggesting that Michael be removed." Best went on to depict Murphy as the actual victim in this situation, saying, "We'd like to believe that people will understand that Michael is excellent at what he does, and that he has a good reputation that, frankly, I have got to believe has been unfairly tarnished, if we believe the consultants."
Finally, in a statement that still resonates throughout the arts community, Best asserted, "What we find is a few bad apples sully the reputation of Shea's." He added that they would “try to remove some of the personalities affecting the reputation of Shea's,” a statement that, in the wake of Bill Patti’s firing, took on an ominous, even threatening character.
At this point, any benefit of the doubt evaporated. If there were bad apples to be found, they were on the board. Best had confirmed that the allegations against Murphy were true, and that the board didn’t care. In addition, it began to look as if Murphy was less the villain in this sad saga than the board of trustees itself.
What are the responsibilities of a not-for-profit board? Proper oversight of planning, finances, and legal obligations, of course, but also maintenance of the organization’s public reputation and evaluation of the CEO. By the last two measures, the Shea’s board scores a double failure. The trustees were failing the staff, they had failed Murphy, and they were tarnishing the reputation of Shea’s.
When the News reported that Murphy’s compensation for his services to Shea’s was $374,138, in 2020, a princely sum by Buffalo standards, the revelation fueled the perception within the arts community that the board was inaccurate in its assessment of Murphy’s worth. According to Shea’s IRS 990s, the next highest paid person at Shea’s earns less than half that amount. Surely, for that sum, an administrator could, minimally, be expected to maintain a harmonious work environment, and surely, a mutiny was proof positive that Murphy could not.
While the statements made to the News by trustee Jonathan Dandes, corporate vice president for Rich Products, were more measured than those of the board chair, in this context they did not ring well, and suggested that the board would split hairs to justify any scenario to support their guy against all complaints. Dandes pointed to the fact that the letter complaining about Michael had not been “unanimous.” Even without accounting for employees who might have been afraid to sign, signatures from 25 of 34 employees (or nearly 75%) would seem to be a decisive majority. This split only highlighted the damaging way in which the situation was fracturing the staff, and turning colleague against colleague.
Dandes’ characterization of Murphy as a “visionary” was questioned within the arts community. When he arrived, six years ago, Murphy was handed leadership of a theater that was already the most successful single-week touring house in the nation, and the unexplored potential of Shea’s Smith Theatre, and Shea’s 710 Theatre. True, two of those years were years of pandemic and shutdown. Still, the venues of Shea's downtown campus were assets for which Murphy never seemed to be able to find a focus or a mission – or a vision.
Box office records, repeatedly cited by the board, had nothing to do with Murphy’s leadership, and were actually the result of booking the national tour of “Hamilton.” Shea’s longtime presenter, Broadway producer Albert Nocciolino is responsible to secure touring shows, and the venue is dependent upon what is coming out of Broadway in any given year.
Murphy had been on the job for six years. Why had possible anger issues never been addressed in all that time, and certainly before a crisis developed? Word is that complaints about Murphy from staff date back not months but years. Was there a point at which the board could have done its job to prevent the total meltdown that occurred this summer, either allowing Murphy to change, or to leave with dignity?
It was difficult to track this story over the past few months. An atmosphere of fear and silence descended upon the proceedings, but to recap some of the key events:
April 2022: Rumors of tumult at Shea’s begin to circulate. By early July these murmurings take on a tone of desperate urgency.
July 17th: Murphy goes on a “leave” that is subsequently described by board chair Best as a “vacation.”
August 12th: 25 members of the 34 person staff sign a letter calling Murphy out for abusiveness, stating "We believe Michael's actions are in violation of our values and policies held by this organization. There are members of our staff who have endured abusive behavior and an unsafe work environment because of Michael. We stand with our colleagues."
Board members begin to resign, including Rich McCarthy, head of the retail banking division at M&T Bank, which sponsors the Shea’s Broadway series and is one of the most important supporters of the arts in the region.
Thembi Duncan, Shea's director of Arts Engagement and Education, becomes the eleventh Shea's staff member to quit this year, a group that will eventually number fifteen.
August 25th: The board finally meets with staff in a 70-minute session that blows up in their faces. In this meeting, board chair Best informs the staff that Murphy is an invaluable asset who will be staying and that any one of them can be replaced. In defense of the staff, general manager Bill Patti asserts that board members who support a toxic work environment should step down.
August 26: Bill Patti is fired for “insubordination.”
August 28th: The Shea’s gala Featuring Renée Elise Goldsberry runs like clockwork with Shea’s staff putting their best face forward. Former Shea’s CEO, Patrick Fagan is honored with a Lifetime Legacy Award; speeches remind the crowd that Shea’s achieved its reputation long before the current administration took over. Michael Murphy is nowhere to be seen, and other than a quick mention in Fagan’s thank you speech, his name never comes up.
August 29th: Broadway Briefing, a highly influential newsletter, read by every Broadway producer and influencer in the American theater reports the troubles at Shea’s and provides links to Mark Sommer’s Buffalo News coverage.
September 1st: The Buffalo News Editorial Board weighs in with a piece questioning the decision of the Shea’s board of trustees to keep Murphy on in a modified role, describing the hybrid administrative model as an unsustainable bandage.
September 3rd: Trustees Best and Dandes finally speak with Mark Sommer of the Buffalo News, insisting that Murphy is a visionary and too valuable an asset to lose. In this meeting, Best describes the staff’s protests at the August 25th meeting as loud and likens the group to a “mob.”
October 21st: The board announces that Murphy is no longer president of Shea’s.
For the remaining members of Shea’s staff, having Murphy gone feels like returning to your village after the occupying enemy has retreated, only to find that the place you once knew has been flattened. While the harm done will be imperceptible to patrons of the Broadway series at Shea’s, behind the scenes, the culture of respect and collaboration that characterized decades of leadership and which helped build Shea’s reputation has been fractured.
In an eloquent and poignant statement made to Mark Sommer at the Buffalo News, Thembi Duncan said, "I wish that the board had trusted us as a staff and that his departure had happened sooner. I'm disappointed that we were left on our own to fend for ourselves and in the end, he was gone anyway."
Later, in conversation with me, Duncan elaborated that she sees a crisis across the not-for-profit sector, in which a highly paid charismatic leader reports directly to a board of directors, while a staff of modestly paid professionals does all the real work.
“We are at a point,” says Duncan, “where we see our own value, and we will not allow ourselves to be mistreated.”
Duncan references the work of Michael J. Bobbitt, the theater director, choreographer, and playwright who is currently the Executive Director of Mass Cultural Council. Bobbitt, who has dedicated his professional career to arts leadership, asserts that the model of the not-for-profit theater board, created to foster community involvement, has gotten warped over time. In a piece published in “American Theatre” magazine, entitled, “Boards Are Broken, So Let’s Break and Remake Them,” (January 2021) Bobbitt describes how nonprofit theater boards are “unrepresentative, out of touch, and more often oppressive than supportive.”
Interestingly, while reporting on the Shea’s story, members of the press heard from stressed employees at multiple other not-for-profit cultural organizations, and troubles between the staff and board at Victory Garden Theater in Chicago were making national headlines.
In his “American Theatre” piece, Bobbitt details a scenario that matches the situation at Shea’s with uncanny precision, describing boards that are “filled with people who have little or no expertise in the mission or the product of the organization.” He talks about board members who have little time to do what they say they will do; who “give themselves ultimate decision-making power to determine the organization’s finances, policies, and future”; “who do not reflect the communities [they] are trying to serve”; who “have no one to be accountable to”; and who “decide who gets to be in their clubs” in the first place.
With that in mind, it bears mention that Murphy may be gone, but the board of trustees that (at best) failed to give him timely feedback and correction; and (at worst) empowered and enabled him, endures. It is undoubtedly unfair to paint every member of the board that oversaw (and continues to oversee) the debacle at Shea’s with the same unflattering brush. It is my observation, however, that as events unfolded, the arts community, which formerly viewed these board members, collectively, as dedicated volunteers, came to view them as an arrogant and demonstrably dangerous crew of overprivileged buffoons, lacking the knowledge or the ethics required to shoulder the responsibilities with which they were entrusted.
Given their past actions, the announcement that “the board will form a committee to open a national search for Murphy’s successor,” and that “the board also plans to announce the addition of several new trustees following its annual meeting Oct. 29,” does not inspire confidence.
While impractical and impossible, an announcement of their resignations, en masse, would have provided greater comfort. Dysfunction will, it seems, smugly perpetuate itself. Unless there is substantial reform in the governance of Shea’s, anyone who signs on to help this unsavory crew advance its dubious agenda will be suspect.
I have mixed feelings about the trustees who resigned, abandoning the institution and its beleaguered employees when their stewardship was needed most. Many corporations do have policies that require executives to resign from boards that violate their own corporate human resource policies. It is also possible that individuals who abandoned ship were concerned that they could be legally liable for board decisions that signaled support of an abusive work environment. It is even possible that the trustees who fled did not entirely abandon their duties but continued to exert influence behind the scenes. We do not know, and their silence was not helpful in this regard.
It seems likely that the folks at M&T, accustomed to wielding great influence in the arts through the bank’s substantial beneficence, overestimated their influence over the thinking of this board. After Rich McCarthy, head of retail banking at M&T resigned from the board in August, the bank, which sponsors the Broadway Series (Shea’s most high profile and lucrative initiative), released a statement, expressing serious unease about developments at Shea's, and spelling out their concern without ambiguity: "Our highest priority is to create an environment where everyone feels safe and welcome, and to ensure that our entire community thrives. We hope the matter gets resolved quickly."
M&T might have expected that the high profile defection of their representative would bring the board to its senses. It did not. In fact, with board members who favored “an environment where everyone feels safe and welcome” conveniently out of the way, the remaining trustees instantaneously determined that Murphy would be staying on. Subsequent comments by Best indicated that the remaining trustees did not care about M&T’s involvement and took the bank’s financial support entirely for granted -- a possibly foolish assumption, considering M&T often makes board representation a requirement for organizations that receive significant funding.
If the Shea’s board is to rehabilitate its reputation, it is imperative that there be some changes.
If there is no board reform (and maybe even if there is) the staff at Shea’s might be best advised to advocate for themselves, possibly by unionizing.
The community will be watching in hopes of greater transparency, a more collaborative (or at least responsive) leadership style, and an effort to reform the board. Best’s tenure as chair needs to come to a dignified end, and he should, in any event, never again be the Shea’s spokesperson.
The community might be more convinced that the Shea’s board truly intends to “create an environment where everyone feels safe and welcome, and to ensure that our entire community thrives,” if the announcement of new board members includes a representative from M&T, ideally, Rich McCarthy himself.
In addition to urging the return of board members who left during the fracas, new leadership might also consider bringing back employees who resigned, or given the circumstances, who were fired.
New board leadership might consider taking steps to facilitate healing and the repair of relationships with and between members of the dedicated staff. Apologies are in order. Given its recent performance, however, it is unlikely that this board will admit to having made any mistakes, and likely that they are oblivious to the need for any reform at all.
We shall see.