conference focus : Conductor and management guru Benjamin Zander got the conference off to a 'transformational'start by getting delegates singing, clapping and joining hands.Paul Smith was there

Watching 1,400 senior managers sing a glorious rendition of Happy Birthday with the polish of a Welsh male voice choir was one of the more unusual aspects of the first day of the NHS Confederation conference.

But it happened. Benjamin Zander, who made the keynote speech at the start of the Manchester event, is conductor of the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra and a part-time 'transformational leadership' speaker.

Sold in the pre-conference pamphlet blurb as the sort of man who could cause 'fundamental shifts' in our lives and enable us to 'emerge with a new energy, joy and capacity for productivity', it was easy to be cynical.

The phrase 'thinking outside the box' cropped up, along with other pieces of jargon so popular in the self-help section of Waterstone's bookshop. But looking at the faces of the delegates inside the conference centre, it was clear Mr Zander was good at his job.

Framed by two giant TV screens, he offered delegates a mix of anecdotes, stories and musical interludes - including a touching rendition of Chopin on the grand piano.

One member of the audience - a slightly embarrassed woman called Jo - had the misfortune to be celebrating a birthday.

And like some comedy club evening nightmare, within minutes she was out in front, before the massed ranks of her peers. Yet suddenly the staid image of the so-called 'NHS suits' was undergoing a strange transformation as they were inspired to an outburst of Happy Birthday, some joining hands and some throwing out their arms with a considerable passion unknown outside trust HQ.

The point was not quite clear - something about realising possibilities of life's richness - but it seemed to work.

Mr Zander ran in and out of the audience throughout a stint lasting nearly two hours. All of us were rapt.

Whether a 'fundamental shift' in attitude in both a personal and professional capacity would take place as the delegates got on with the more mundane job of discussing the fate of the NHS over the next three days may be a harder question to answer.

But surely health secretary Alan Milburn would make greater strides with his seemingly endless programme of reform by studying Mr Zander's techniques - even if it does make managers forget their troubles for a while.