How to Listen and Lead in Evolving Markets

As a leader in the constantly evolving music industry, Iñigo Zabala, President of Warner Music Latin America & Spain, speaks to Nick Van Dam about the importance of listening when managing a diverse team and how to deal with mistakes whilst working in an ever-progressing market.

Nick Van Dam: For more than 25 years you have been leading the professional careers of many of the great stars of the Latin American music scene. What are the keys that have allowed you to work successfully with great artists and make the best of them?

Iñigo Zabala: I’ve always tried to make our artists feel free to create while respecting their ideas, visions, and individuality. I also think honesty is key. Oftentimes as an artist gains popularity they’re surrounded by people who constantly praise them. I feel it’s my responsibility to always be honest with them, which at times can be difficult, but in my experience has always paid off.

Nick Van Dam: In your case, who began your professional career as a musician and composer, do you think that having been “on the other side” helps you to know what artists need and then help them use all their talent?

Iñigo Zabala: Yes, of course. Many people believe that creation comes spontaneously and it almost never does. Writing, recording and touring can be very hard and I don’t think I would value it the same if I hadn’t gone through it myself. My experience has also helped me understand how to connect our artists with the best people in order to enhance their work.

Nick Van Dam: We can talk about leadership focused on people, what do you think are the main aspects that must be taken into account when managing teams, as appropriate, determined in different countries, and so on successfully?

Iñigo Zabala: Yes, people are the cornerstone of any strategy. When we talk about talent in Warner, we mean not only our artists, but also the people who work for the company. To maintain a good team you need to start with people who share a common goal and vision. I want to be surrounded by people who have new ideas and who can adapt to the constant technological changes facing our industry. Listening is also essential, what works in one country sometimes doesn’t work in another. We also support an entrepreneurial spirit and want everyone to feel comfortable sharing their ideas. One day my old assistant came into my office and said, “Iñigo, we have to sign this artist, I love him .” And we did. His name is Danny Ocean and his song “Me Rehuso ” is about to generate three billion streams. At the time my assistant wasn’t part of our artistic department, but her idea led us to a great signing and now she has moved onto the artistic department. I could think of so many examples just like that one over the last 25 years I’ve been occupying leading positions in this organization.  I’ve always tried to make every last employee feel like they are part of the decision-making process of our company. That’s why I hire people that I think have the potential to grow and evolve within the company and take on different roles that maybe they weren’t necessarily hired for at first.

Nick Van Dam: Without a doubt, your long professional career is full of great successes occupying positions of great responsibility in Warner Music. However, do you think mistakes are the way to great ideas? Do we learn more from our mistakes or our successes?

Iñigo Zabala: In our industry things are constantly changing at a dizzying rate, making it impossible for us to not make mistakes. The important thing is that we identify and correct those mistakes immediately. Fortunately, thanks to today’s technology we have information about what is happening to the minute, so we can properly analyze and modify the direction of our decisions. It’s also important for me to encourage ALL members of my team to take initiative and not be afraid to make decisions.

Nick Van Dam: From your experience, what makes this sector different when it comes to exercising leadership and managing teams? And what role do technological innovations play?

Iñigo Zabala: I think that leadership is leadership. And that implies having a clear set of principles like: demanding the best out of myself and my team; leading by example; conveying confidence; listening; promoting the open discussion of ideas; practicing constructive criticism; having confidence in my team members; and helping my team reach their goals.


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