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Episode Summary

Orit Wolf is an acclaimed international concert pianist, lecturer, and business consultant for innovative thinking and creative marketing. Orit talks on how she uses her music background to consult companies on innovation and inspire leaders to create a more creative work environment. Listen to Orit’s story and more on today’s episode.

Creative Marketing, Music, Warmth, Mastery, and Innovation with Orit Wolf

Hello and welcome to the Innovation Ecosystem Podcast. Today we’re with Orit Wolf the international pianists and leadership innovation consultant. She brings together a few really important aspects here of creativity, innovation, creative marketing, and working in large corporate organizations too. A fascinating set of insights that we can really dig into, good morning to you Orit?

Good morning Roddy, good to hear from you.

Hi, I’m really glad that we’re able to speak today. We’ve known each other for a little while and I think what I know of your background in creative marketin puts you in a fascinating position to have a discussion around this innovation ecosystem topic. I think it’d be really interesting to dig into how you use your musical background in a corporate world. Before we do that perhaps we ought to just understand a little bit better where you come from in a musical sense. When did you start playing the piano and how did you get into that?

That’s a lovely question. I started in a very young age when I was six years old and I have to tell you that I did not have parents who pushed me into music or piano lessons. It was on the contrary, I was really envying a good friend of mine that I used to go to school with everyday in the first grade and she got piano lessons. I was so jealous of having seeing her playing so well and getting those lessons that I just … one day I said to the piano teacher of hers would I be able to bring my mother the next day in order to have myself starting piano lessons? She set a time for me and my mother and the next day I took my mother to a place she never knew, she never heard about the teacher, she never heard where she lives.

“You have to have passion and some kind of an obsession for something that you really love.”

I remember taking my mother hand by hand to this neighborhood piano teacher and I forced my mother to start giving me piano lessons. I have to tell you something really interesting because I think the raw or the seeds for this passion was already there. My parents did not buy me a piano right away, they said to me, “If you are so eager to learn piano then you should practice at your friend’s house for a while.” Every day between four and a half past four in the afternoon I had a slot of time to come and practice in my friend’s place. This was for months and months until my friend’s mother called and phoned my mother and said, “Ruth I think you’ve got to buy your daughter a piano by now as the piano is in our bedroom and it’s quite disturbing.”

That was a really (good) story and true enough a few days later I came home from school and a new piano was waiting for me. It was a beautiful start Roddy, because I think when you’re pushed to something and when your parents or your teachers have to nudge you and remind you to go and practice then you really do not have this passion. I would dare to say the dirty word obsession as well. What I’m looking for and musicians and leaders will see it later on is this dirty word obsession. You have to have passion and some kind of an obsession for something that you really love. That was the start and two years later I was very lucky to … got accepted to one of those … I call them Madame Sousatzka teachers.

The British film Madame Sousatzka with Shirley MacLaine, I’m sure you know her. It’s about this piano teacher that rules her pupils’ life and really control them. I always say what I had is 10 times more than Madame Sousatzka film because it was really harsh education in a way. It’s about three times a week to have lessons and I remember my teacher would say to my father, “Bring her at half past seven but I’m not sure when you’re taking her back.” Lessons were about two and half hours, three hours at a time and she gave all her life to her students and we had to give all our attention and passion and life for the piano.  That was a start and from a very young age you go into this new zone of competitions of winning and losing of selling yourself at the age of nine or 10 to big audiences.

Standing in front of audiences, selling yourself even if we don’t want to use this word but it is about selling doing this sort of creative marketing. It is about creating art but also conveying and approaching and communicating your message to lots of people. Well, later I’ll tell you how I got to innovation in creative marketing but that was the start anyway.

That’s a great story. I’m interested, do you think your parents were fully appreciative of the approach that they were taking? That by making you go out and learn at someone else’s house and how to get through the routine of practice that they were testing you to a certain extent or was it just that that was more convenient?

That’s a great one. I think they didn’t know what they were getting into that’s for sure. No one knew because when you go into this profession it’s not about profession it’s about a way of life and the way you run your life is different. I remember my parents would let me skip some school as well. Something that is unheard of nowadays but I remember the days that I had to be ready for competitions or concerts they would ask me if I want to stay home and that was acceptable. They flew with the wind and they realized that at a very young age, I think it was 11 or 12, that I’m in the route of being a concert pianist and there is a price to pay for that.

It means that you have to practice between four to six hours a day, that you have to have different dress that you have to practice, you have to do rehearsals with others, you have to do camera music, you have to learn theory and so many other professions that connected to piano. It’s not just about piano it’s about learning the context of which you are surrounded. It’s going to festivals, it’s going abroad. For the first time I took an airplane when I was 12 was to play in Germany and Belgium and it was first time on the airplane without my parents, alone to play with orchestra. It’s a new way of life but they never pushed it. They never asked me to practice, on the contrary they said, “Enough practice, come have something to eat.”

You had that inner drive to practice.


I know as a parent of children who play or practice the piano or at least learn the piano that getting them to go and practice is pretty much a full-time occupation. It sounds to me that that wasn’t an issue for your parents, the practicing. You were devoted to the piano. That that passion was there already and you wanted to build on it constantly.

Yes. I think you said the right word, the inner drive, this passion, I had it inside me. This is actually the first characteristic or the first trait that I’m looking for when I meet with different leaders or different people who are involved with innovation. I have to tell you the story how I came about to deal with those two professions, to have two sides in me that one is in the music and art and the other is in innovation and leadership and managers. I think it was very funny, I went on stage one day in a live recording to the radio and it was both a live recording and a live concert in Jerusalem. The worst thing that can happen to a concert pianist happened to me that day.

You can imagine what it was because after 12 minutes of playing by heart of course I had a blackout. That was a very crucial and meaningful moment in my whole life I can say because I was always told the show must go on. You have to keep going but nobody told me how to keep going, nobody told me told me how to turn a mistake into an opportunity. Nobody told me how not to play just from memory of notes, nobody taught me how to improvise. I remember stopping the music and it was live recording and it was such a shameful occasion. I felt embarrassed, I felt shame, I felt so sad, I didn’t know where to put myself. Eventually I kept going but of course it was not the same and it was a terrible concert. I’m telling you …

You kept playing the music as you expected it…

Exactly. I kept going.

as you hoped it would be or you had the confidence to improvise at that stage?

No, I hadn’t had the courage to improvise. I was absolutely reluctant of those tools which I had to have. It was crucial moment because when I finished this concert which was horrible I realized that if want to be on stage I’ve got to have the right tools of composition, of improvisation, of self courage, of self-esteem, of being able to go out of any mistakes and turn it into something beautiful on stage. I started to learn composition and improvisation and it was a whole new start for me. It gave me insurance policy, that’s what I always feel. I bought an insurance policy that no matter what I can go on and do a lovely performance even if I don’t have my notes or even if I forgot the music or even if it’s too hot or people are making lots of noises.

That was a very important moment because I think that this moment I realized that this is what’s connecting so much to leadership. Because you have lots of people who give lectures but look at them, are they using their notes? Would they do it without a computer, without a PowerPoint presentation? Can they convey their message without their tools? Can they just be there alone on stage without any instruments and still give you an impact powerful presentation? That’s a very interesting question. I have to tell you that since then the search for innovation, the search for what happens in the brain of those who improvise it was very fascinating for me and I dedicated my life to research these issues.

What happens to people who in stressful moments improvise? How do they make their decision? It’s all about decision making, how you make a decision to take one route or another, how you turn one motive into something else. That’s a very fascinating subject in music but it’s actually not about music because soon enough I found myself lecturing about it and people from businesses said to me, “Listen, could you come to my organization and talk about these issues?” I would say … I remember I was about 21 years old and I would say, “Listen I don’t see the correlation, I’ve never learned business, I’ve never learned creative marketing. I was not trained in those professions, how can I give you any benefit or added value?”

I remember it was from Teva the pharmaceutical company and they said, “I know you would and please come and speak about those decision making and about those innovative decisions that you’re making on stage. Please talk to my colleagues and my team about your life.” That was another turning moment because I learned from that moment that there’s something in music making that can give so much insight to other professions in terms of creative marketing.

That story of you as still a young performer on the stage and blacking out as the music continued. That’s a very in the moment crisis, isn’t it? Hopefully in the vast majority of corporate decision making we don’t have 1000 eyes on us expecting us to play the next note now. You had no time to stop and consider what your alternatives were, you had to flow at that stage. Innovating and improvising in the moment is a huge skill. I wonder whether being so under the microscope in that kind of situation allows you a greater calmness or a greater ability to deal with similar kinds of issues when you do have a bit more space, a bit more time to reflect in a corporate situation.

Yes, absolutely. You’re right. When you’re on stage you have to make very, very fast decisions and improvisation is the tool. If you reflect on this later on and you realize what was the causes for this … I’ll call this disruption. Because in business we’re speaking about the word disruption. It’s a very, I would say hot word nowadays. What are the disruption that you were facing and how you solve them, how you approach them. Did you ignore them or did you use them for your advantage? If you reflect on this later on we call it also reverse engineering. I’ll tell you that when I was studying at the Royal Academy of Music I don’t know if many people know but it’s in London on Marylebone Road.

Down in the basement there is a pub, there is a bar and there is a custom, a very interesting custom that every good concert your teacher is supposed to take you down to the bar and invite you for a beer and then you talk about the reverse engineering of your performance. I think this is a very correlated process for businesses. Even if you have a wonderful successful presentation, creative marketing plan, or process that you’ve done with your team or project instead of just rejoicing and celebrating we actually beyond the celebration we do a process of reverse engineering. Meaning we’re going backwards in time and in processes to understand what was the causes that made it so successful or vice versa, what was the causes that made it so not good, so failing.

We learned from this process and actually we record ourselves as well and we film ourselves and we look at ourselves in reflection. It’s very visual, you can actually see then catch it in your eyes. I think that businesses do not often do reverse engineering enough as a daily process after …

No, I think that’s a really powerful point. I remember someone talking about this to me a while ago and again it’s interesting that the pub, the bar comes into it. He said if people spent as much time thinking about how they do their work and indeed how they live their lives as they do in the bar analyzing a game of football after it’s happened then we would all improve dramatically. There’s far more time spent analyzing how your team has performed on the pitch at the weekend than anyone ever does about how their projects go on or how other elements of their lives go. I think that’s a really, really, strong piece of advice

Thank you. Absolutely. I love what you said about the football because I think in football as well in sports people do this reverse engineering. They sit with their coach and they analyze the success and failure and so do we as musicians. I also like to say that the reason we do it is not because we are also so exposed but also because music it’s about playing and not gaming. We say we play the piano, we don’t game the piano. I think this very verb, the verb play you have old essence of what we’re making and I think we can take it into business because playing means let’s explore, that’s the word. Let’s explore, let’s try, let’s rejoice with it, let’s contemplate with that.

It’s not about just winning or losing. It’s not just about result, one endless result. We’re looking for different tastes and different trials. I remember that the first lesson I had in the Royal Academy was absolutely gorgeous because I was playing the Moonlight Sonata by Beethoven and the teacher said to me, “Could you play it completely different?” I would say, “What do you mean completely different?” He said, “Kick off your chair and stand up and play it without a chair and play it fast and loud. Then can you make it in a jazz song, can you make it in a more impressionistic style?” The ability to take a piece of music or like it be a piece of job or a project that we all know and actually drive it in different ways.

Deliver it in different tastes is so fascinating for the imagination because it doesn’t lead you to understanding that there’s only one way to do a job. We don’t do the job, we actually don’t want people to do just their job. We want people to leave their stamp behind, to leave a personal mark behind. We’re looking for the differences because otherwise if I would send you to YouTube to hear any beautiful piece that you love, the Ninth Symphony and Beethoven, the Moonlight Sonata, Mozart concertos, you’d find over hundreds of different performances. How do you know what’s best? Now, there is not a best one but it’s about differences, it’s about tastes.

I think in business we ought to really train people to look for newness, to look for creativity, to look for not just winning or losing or competing but rather to bring your own personal mark into the music of the business that you play.

I think that’s really fascinating. It brings up two points I suppose. One which is that in order to improvise you have to have real depth of knowledge and skill to be able to do it well. You’ve got to completely have mastered the foundations of whatever instrument you’re playing, if we’re talking in musical context, and be able to draw on those and pull them in quickly. So on one side, is that mastery is required and in order to get mastery we know there’s masses of practice to input. On the other side I’m very conscious of it was Peter Drucker’s quote that organizations shouldn’t need geniuses to run them, they need average people to run them.

You clearly have an exceptional skill with the piano and that enables you to do this. We can’t expect everyone to have that level of skill. Is it possible to be innovative and improvise if you’ve only got an average skill set and knowledge of your work?

I love what you said and I’d love to relate to the two points you mentioned. Yes, first of all you do need to have full capacity and mastery of your instrument. Otherwise if you don’t have the norms that you’re good at, if you’re not sitting in a box I would say then you cannot get out of the box. You need a box in the very first place and I like people to learn the box but I also like them to forget the box. This is number one that we’re trying to train … And this is the difference between leaders and managers and between players and real artists. Real artists and real leaders are the ones who know the boxes but they can actually forget about them while presenting and leading the war.

You asked me about the average, I think in every creature there is creativity and look how beautiful the word is, creativity, creature, creating. It’s the same verb, it’s the same essence of the word meaning in every creature we have the essence of creativity. It’s about I would say of using … using is a lovely verb, it means taking out what’s already existing in the person. Not bringing anything new but actually knowing how to take what’s already there and bring it out. Using the talent of oneself. You’re very right that  nowadays that the power is not about those people who learn the job. You don’t see for example for top management jobs or top VP of marketing, I don’t see any more people who learn necessarily marketing all their lives.

This is a very interesting point that we’re looking nowadays for people who have a much versatile and interdisciplinary vast knowledge and this is what we’re looking for in an artist. Somebody who can do lots of other things, somebody who can give concert lectures, who can play different instruments, who can compose, who can conduct, not just one path person. This is what we’re looking for and I will say to you that if number one was for us the innovation but I would say the number two for me when I’m looking for artist and big leaders, which is a sentence that I take with me all my life, which is feel number one even if you’re not. What do you think about that?

I think that plays to the whole concept of having personal confidence, doesn’t it? Which you’ve got to be sure of yourself in order to move forward in a slightly different direction. That place of that creativity, I love that connection between creature and creativity, I hadn’t thought of that before. I think it plays to a passion of mine which is about trying to get people to be themselves more. To me more ‘human’ not only in their work within an organizational structure but also how they allow other people to relate to them. I think that somewhere at the seed of that is a core or creativity. I wonder from your perspective both as a performer but also perhaps within large organizations if there’s things that you do to try and build that connection between yourself as a performer and the audience. Trying to get people to build relationships within an organization so that they’re more creative.

Yes. I’d love to relate to this. I think that the idea of working only with top managers or the top hierarchy of the organization is no longer appealing for me when I arrive at the organization. For me what’s very important is to see how those leaders are actually approaching every human being in the company. It doesn’t mean that they have to know every human being in the company but it means that they have to have that access and the knowledge and the ability to learn from them better than they learn from themselves. I think this is about an audience. I have to make sure even though I will not look at my audience while I’m playing that I can catch every bit of attention from everyone.

That I can really relate to everyone in the audience even if it’s 2000 people in the audience. My goal when I go on stage is actually to bring 2000 people in the feeling that are in the salon of my own home, as if they were sitting in my own salon. This is a great challenge because how are you making a huge capacity of audience that you don’t even look at them while you play the piano feeling at home at your very own home? It’s about making this intimacy and the legitimacy to feel in such a way. I think this is the challenge of a great leader to make everyone at the organization have the legitimacy to be part of this here, to be part of the process.

It’s true we cannot be innocent, if you were in the last hierarchy you can’t affect all the major decisions of course but if you can have the legitimacy to have your sound speak out and if you have the legitimacy for an open door to your leader then we’re creating a real beautiful circle of feedback. Another question that I also used to start a workshop with to a room of the big manager who feels, “Oh I know how to do job, what can she teach me now?” I always saw I have nothing to teach leaders, it’s just about awareness and exposure. I always like to have them write their CV of failures, that puts you in different place whatsoever.

If you take a piece of paper and instead of saying what’s your success but actually you write down your CV of failures or even we don’t have to take it so far away. We can actually ask people to write the failure of the month or the failure of the week that they just had. That’s quite a provocative task because we don’t like to speak about failures, right?

How does that go? That opens up the conversation no doubt. I think dealing with failure and the attitude to failure is absolutely critical to creating an environment of innovation and success. What’s the sense that you get when you pose that question of your clients?

That’s why I’m laughing because I always remind myself the faces of people when I ask this task because people are shocked. I always start with my own stories of failures and I do not put them in this situation of just exposure without me giving a personal example. I started with my own personal experience of going on stage and failing or forgetting what I wanted to say or forgetting lots of things. When you open up this box which is a very black box you discover that people are very … human are fragile … essence is coming out because we leave our egos and our masks away. Isn’t it what we want to reach eventually from every process and organizational process within an organization?

It’s amazing when you’re able to share your weaknesses then you open a beautiful karma of your own team to share their own failures or their own challenges, let’s call it challenges. I love it.

Do people get that straight away or not straight away but at least at the end of that exercise?

Absolutely. I don’t let them go away until they share their own.

There’s no failure at that stage.


Have you had feedback from people on how they have then used that back in the workplace? Do you get to see the impact of people being more human around that? Sharing failure and you never want to champion it but you want to say that it is an inevitable part of progress of moving forward.


Do you get feedback from people saying that it created a difference?

Very much so, very much. I get lots of letters and emails and also I see those people again and again and they have some homework. They tell me how it was to start a meeting, while starting the meeting about telling the failure story of the month. First of all it raises humors in the room which is about … it’s causing embarrassment but then brings humor and it’s a new approach to our weaknesses. It’s putting them straight forward on the table in a very strong light and giving them a stage so people love it. They’re afraid of it, I wouldn’t say they were not afraid of it in the beginning, but once they put it on it’s a beautiful I would say product to use.

Also what I like to complement them is to say okay after this exercise you have to have a new exercise of asking people the dreams. Another question that you can really train artists and leaders is actually to ask them no matter how financial issues are involved. Let’s imagine that you have all the money in world that you can invest in your idea what would be that fantasy that you would love to pursue within your job? What is the dream or the fantasy that you would love to engage your job with? You’d be surprised Roddy that so many people do not have dreams, do not have fantasies. It’s actually quite startling and shocking for me that even if you let people dream they forget their dreams because they’re so occupied in the daily task, in the daily what I must do and what I ought to do.

Those verbs must and ought and need they’re very scary verbs because they put you in that box again of things that we all have to do. We all have to do things that we don’t like but how much percentage do you actually put in it? How much percentage do you leave for the fantasy for the dream for the contemplation, for the experience, for the exploration, for the free time that you need and the space? This is leading me Roddy for the really big last thing that I’d love to talk about. In music we say music is not the sounds, it’s not the notes, it’s the time you take between the notes. This is a very strong message for leadership because it’s not about what you do it’s about the space between what you do.

The space between what you say, the space between your mind and your words and your thoughts and the space you take for yourself to reevaluate your processes in doing. I hope you can relate.

I think that’s a fantastic point and it resonates with me hugely and it goes back to that word that you used earlier which is having the opportunity to reflect and think about the wider horizon rather than just perhaps the narrow issue at hand. I think that’s a fantastic and powerful point to end on and a very uplifting one too. It’s been superb talking to you, there’s always so many interesting ideas coming out. I love that interplay of the piano, the music, the improvisation and how it transfers to a logic stand seamlessly into other parts of modern life too. Everything is connected from that point of view. Thank you very much indeed, it’s been a pleasure speaking to you.

Thank you. It was a pleasure for me and I could go on and on. It’s such a beautiful time to speak with you and engage with the thoughts of many, many things.


Links Mentioned

Orit Wolf Website

Orit on Twitter

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