Manageable Guides

Expert views on topics relevant to all leaders and teams.

Itay Talgam is an orchestral conductor who now teaches leadership to Fortune 500 companies, nonprofits and universities. He speaks at conferences around the world, including TED, Google's Zeitgeist, and the World Economic Forum at Davos. Drawing on his experience as a 'conductor of people' he strives to create human harmony through cooperation.

Hi, I'm Itay, Itay Talgam, I am a conductor. I conduct orchestras. That is, I stand in front of orchestras moving my hands, hoping for some good result. But I also conduct people, with the same basic intention - to take something which is disorganised and make it harmonious. Now, how does this happen in music? This, I'm sure something you've all experienced: you go into a concert hall, you sit there waiting for the concert to start and then all the players are getting organised on stage, they're all warming up. Everybody does what's good for them , and what you hear is chaotic cloud of sound, and you're waiting for the harmony, since this is what you paid for. In classical music, it seems very easy because all you need is a conductor on the podium to do something not very grand, maybe something like this, and then you get harmony. And it's very tempting for a conductor like myself to think it's all thanks to me. I don't really think you're going to buy that. It's not just thanks to me, there are many people involved, which brings us to the conductor of people, people in music, as in people in business. My name is Itay Talgam and this is my Manageable Guide to how to make unpredictable brilliance more predictable.

So there are many players in this game of harmony creating. When you look at a poster advertising a concert, you will see something quite strange. We'll see, let's say the London Symphony Orchestra. One line and then conducted by Riccardo Muti, which will be in huge letters and then in small print, you'll have people with minor contributions to the event, people like Mozart, Beethoven, you know, etc. which you might find a bit strange, right? The conductor is the only person who doesn't make any sound, and music is about sound. Or is it? Did we get sound from Mozart? Nope. From Beethoven? No. Anybody had Johann Sebastian Bach playing his music? No. What we got from those great composers are just instructions to make music. But these are only instructions, they need to be carried out. So if you have the players playing together and individually engaged in an expressive way, then you have good partners for making harmony happen.

Getting back to the conductor, the one who does not make any sound - how is a conductor responsible for the interpretation? As we said, you have a plan, you want to carry that out, you need interpretation. And how would this interpretation be achieved? I think there are basically two ways. One is to know everything and the second way is to know something and then hope to create the rest with help of others. Classical authority is, of course, the first way. You have a conductor coming in, who will try to make everyone simply perform the allocated job as the conductor says it. Look at Riccardo Muti, a great name conducting, indeed, a wonderful musician coming on stage, and he walks in as if in a bubble. He doesn't need anything to come from either the audience or the orchestra. He is just standing there, bringing everything from inside and makes a huge, demanding gesture that creates a great sound from the orchestra. This is a person who knows exactly what he wants, and who makes everybody else very scared that they don't actually achieve exactly what they're asked or demanded from. And does it work? Yes, it works very, very well because he does know what he wants. He's really good.

But what goes out the window with such an attitude is, of course, every attempt to be experimental, creative, you know, to do something different. When Riccardo Muti is asked why do you conduct in this commanding, what we call command and control way? Do you enjoy it? He says "no, I feel very much alone, like on a desert island". So why do you conduct like this? He said, "because I feel responsible, I am 100% responsible for the outcome". For the outcome. Responsible to whom? He was further asked. And he doesn't mean himself. He means Mozart, but there's also an authority up there. So it's all about the hierarchy of authorities I'm under and therefore I cannot leave you any space to do anything. Now, if you ask Riccardo Muti, who is the best conductor in the world, he will not say himself, will not point to himself not only because he's a modest, very nice guy, actually but because he really would like to be somebody else. And that somebody else is the one that I would like to use now, to portray the other choice.

If you look at Carlos Kleiber, you can get a very clear message, not of what to do, as a player, but what the outcome results should be. So you see, on one hand, you get a lot of information, but the information is not what to do. What to do, you have to figure out for yourself. So basically, what Kleiber does is to use his enormous, you know, expressive, conducting gestures, to open a space each time for people playing, to come up with their own interpretation. So in a way, he knows what he wants but always you can see that he's surprised by what he gets. And that's a very interesting combination for me to be very knowledgeable and yet to be able to put some kind of a screen that says, ok, I'm going to use my knowledge to create a platform for you, but you're gonna take this platform and go much higher than I myself can ever imagine. And that takes courage, and also a lot of wisdom, assuming that I go with the “what will make this whole thing stay together”? Again, thinking about Muti, it's very clear Muti does this. But when Kleiber does something like this... how will they, you know, know what to do? Or how will the decision, individual decisions come together to create something coherent? I actually had some beautiful metaphor for that from another person I conversed with, with Kleiber. He says, this guy takes me to a day in Disneyworld and he puts me on one of those wonderful roller coasters. You're going like this and you can't fall, you're with everybody else on-so why can't you fall from a roller coaster, moving roller coaster? Is this discipline? No, there's no discipline, nobody looks at you. What keeps you on the roller coaster is the laws of physics, not gravity. Gravity will pull you down, rather than the centrifugal force which is created by the movement itself.

So Kleiber is wide enough to create a movement that will keep everyone working where they are. But remember, they have to be subject to the same movement, that his people in his organisation have to understand what we're doing. Now, in order to stay with everybody else, they have to understand the logic of the process. Now, if everybody understands the logic of the process, then they will come up with, you know, decisions about interpretation that they own, and therefore are very committed to. I realised that you dear colleagues as managers are not usually having rollercoasters in your offices or companies or whatever. We don't also have a rollercoaster in the symphony orchestra. The rollercoaster is in our heads, you know, and actually something amazing has happened because you don't even have a score for your business, probably, because so many things are coming out of our control. So you're actually building a rollercoaster while taking the ride, which is something I can only admire you for doing. And the thing is you have to be very sure that everyone knows the logic of your movement, otherwise you can never stay together this way. Again, this is the condition and the great benefit is everybody having you know this kind of autonomy to create, to take risks, to be accountable for you know, for what they do, and to be proud of what they do. And of course you get engagement like no other organisation or orchestra. The other advantage is, of course, that being an ignorant maestro, which is my term for the ability to disassociate yourself, of disassociating yourself from everything that will bring a result that is far beyond what you yourself could imagine. Many people do think that Carlos Kleiber is the best conductor, at least in recorded history of conducting.

But we have to compliment this idea of Kleiber of this collaboration through sharing the process with another idea of that of my great teacher, Lorna Bernstein. Bernstein started from the meaning of the music, what does it mean? Now, meaning is a very tricky thing. Because if I would ask you now, assuming that this little talk that we have now has meaning, where is the meaning is it on that side of the camera, or that side of the screen. And of course, the meaning is, on your side, it doesn't matter what I say, it matters, what you understand, what you make of it by letting it go into dialogue with something else. Now, I, on that side of the camera and you as managers , have to come to terms with the fact that I'm not making the meaning of my own talk. So it's all about the dialogue. And to make this dialogue work, you have to create relationships. That is what Lorna Bernstein was busy doing all the time, to have such relationships with people that they would take that responsibility for their side of the dialogue, to make this work. And once they did it, the music became meaningful. By the way, not only the players, he also did this with audiences. Because when you speak about meaning, you can include your customers.

Now, when you take Kleiber's line of thought, by the process, sharing the process with the professionals, and then Bernstein's idea of creating a dialogue with a larger community, you understand now that your product is not actually the thing that is called the product. It's the way of making it. So conductive people I guess, what you do, involves then if you look at the Kleiber-esque perspective, being professional, knowing all your processes, being able to connect them to the people. Taking your Bernstein side is understanding that the way you do things matters not just to the professional community, of course, your community, but also to everything that's around your organisation. And the questions that we should be asking ourselves, I'm sure you already do, are really how do we combine the process and the meaning for ourselves and for everything that's around us. My name is Itay Talgam, and this is my Manageable Guide to how to make unpredictable brilliance more predictable.