January 26, 2012

Invite a politician to dinner…

Posted in Between Us column, Diversity, Politics, Relationships at 10:21 pm by dinaheng

If you’re sitting around the dinner table with family when an argument breaks out, you may or may not speak up, depending on how often you were told to be quiet as a child. Ditto for sitting around that conference table at work and speaking up if you disagree with the boss.

When it comes to politics, there’s no escaping it. Every family has power dynamics. In every office and work setting, the most powerful people are the ones who speak up. Whether their thought is worth hearing is neither here nor there. In corporate America, if you don’t speak up for yourself, you’re nobody.

Watching the Republican debates is a bit like watching the conversation at the dinner table. One candidate may be very intellectual in his reasoning. Another may tap into emotional intelligence. Another may have neither brain nor sensitivity, but knows how to blow with the wind and fan the flames of fear.

You may not agree with any of them, but you have to bless them for being brave enough to be a politician in this partisan age. Same goes for President Obama. Whether or not you agree with his political decisions, he was strong enough to make some tough  choices and quit smoking at the same time.

The problem with most debates is that people aren’t hearing what candidates truly think  because politicians are too afraid to trust that what they actually believe will get them elected. So they say what they think people most want to hear. And let’s face it — most of us want to hear different things.

When did we become so angry as a nation that all we can do is demonize those who don’t agree with us? Yes, the economy has a lot to do with it. If you’re losing your retirement savings or watching your middle class income shrink while those at the top of the heap continue to get bigger tax breaks and more money, it’s impossible to stay silent at the dinner table.

But we have to do more than shout our anger. We have to elect people who actually know how to govern… meaning, we have to put people in office who will look out for everyone’s interest, not just those who made campaign contributions to them. People who will be strong enough to shame us when we are unwilling to sacrifice for the greater good. People who are caring enough to inspire us all to be better human beings.

We need politicians who are smart enough to know how to forge relationships, make compromises, and teach the country that we are ONE nation under God, not mini-fiefdoms that look out only for their own needs.

A friend who volunteers to read to disadvantaged school children in an after-school program told me a story recently about how far we’ve strayed from remembering what’s important.

She said, “I started to read to this little girl when she asked me, ‘Do you have anything to eat? I haven’t eaten since yesterday. My heart broke because she started looking around the room, looking for some food to eat, and there was none.”

We can debate the state of the economy all we want, but isn’t it time we pulled together at the dinner table? Tell the politicians that it’s time to stop worrying about who has a seat at the table. Work together to make the table bigger, so that everyone truly has a place to sit, and enough to eat.

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January 19, 2012

Books that call to all ages

Posted in Between Us column, Diversity, Relationships, Women at 11:42 pm by dinaheng

My nieces and nephews range in age from three years old to 17, and while they tend to be glued to their iPads, Nintendo DSs and iPhones, I try to distract them now and then with a good book.

Yes, I know their reading medium of choice will likely be in the form of an electronic tablet, but I still like the feel of holding an old-fashioned bound book and turning its  pages. So before that format disappears, I want to put books into their hands as often as possible.

Books, of course, are aimed at readers of differing ages. When it comes to picture books, my all-time favorite is “Old Turtle” by Douglas Wood (Scholastic Press, $17.95). This parable about a wise old turtle that reminds all creatures of our connection to God, to the earth, and to each other is illustrated with beautiful watercolors by Cheng-Khee Chee.

A new picture book titled “Extra Yarn” by Mac Barnett and illustrated by Jon Klassen (HarperCollins, $16.99) imparts another important lesson to readers… that hope and kindness can transform a community. The book, aimed at ages 4 to 8, tells the tale of a cold little town, where everything is either snowy white or sooty black. When Annabelle finds a box full of yarn of every color, she changes the town and its residents in ways they never imagined.

While the press materials for this book, now out in stores, talk about hope and kindness as a theme, I see a message of appreciating people of all colors in the illustrations. For once things are no longer just black and white, the world becomes a joyous place that  even greedy archdukes and robbers cannot spoil.

Since I’m a fan of fantasy and adventure, my taste in middle-grade books doesn’t always synch with my nephews who love the wise-cracking humor of the “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” series by Jeff Kinney (Amulet Books). But I’m going to recommend that my  nieces and nephews try “The Grave Robber’s Apprentice” by Allan Stratton ($16.99, HarperCollins), aimed at those ages 10 and older.

This fairy tale about Hans, a grave robber in training, and Angela, a young countess fleeing an evil archduke, has all the elements of a good adventure — non-stop action, characters you care about, and a mystery that shows that everything in life is truly connected. On sale March 6, this book for fifth graders is one that will appeal to readers of all ages.

When it comes to young adult fiction, science fiction and romance seem to dominate the titles, dealing with adult topics in thinly disguised language. One of the best young adult novels I’ve started to read is “Tangled” by Erica O’Rourke ($9.95, paperback, Kensington). The second paranormal book in a series of three, “Tangled” takes the reader into a conflicted world where Maureen (Mo) Fitzgerald faces magical enemies and the Chicago Mob as she must choose between the life she’s dreamed of and the destiny that confronts her.

Now out in stores, “Tangled” is an allegory for readers of all ages, for we all must choose between safety and risk, acting out of love and acting out of fear. Like life, the plot twists and unfolds in an adventure worth taking.

Now, if I can only get my teenage niece to give it a read…

January 11, 2012

Cirque CEO leads with an artist’s heart

Posted in Between Us column, Business, Diversity, Employment, Entertainment at 7:21 pm by dinaheng

Daniel Lamarre, president and CEO of Cirque du Soleil, is a businessman who understands that in any enterprise, dollars and people sense must work together if creativity is to thrive, and profits are to grow.

Lamarre, a former Canadian television executive, was a marketing/public relations consultant in 1986 when Guy Laliberté, founder of the street artist troupe that would become a worldwide sensation, asked for his help.

“He had no money to pay me,” says Lamarre, who nevertheless shared his expertise with Laliberté. “Twelve years later, when Cirque was successful, I became the head of a TV network in Canada. I told Guy that I would like to have the TV rights to Cirque, and we started to see each other more because of the project.

“He called me from London one day and said, ‘You’re going to join the circus. Are you willing to talk to me about it?’ Three weeks later, I joined Cirque.”

Eleven years later, Lamarre is in charge of the business side of Cirque du Soleil, guiding the decisions that turn Laliberté’s vision into profitable ventures. How do you manage a company of thousands whose products are based on ever-changing ideas?

“It doesn’t matter how good a business guy you are, if you don’t love artists and content,” says Lamarre, sitting in a Beverly Hills hotel restaurant. “Guy is a great dreamer, and so am I. I cannot be just a business guy. I have to be sensitive to the production and content.

“We provide artists stability. We have people who have been with us for 27 years. When I sit and watch a show, I feel good that I’ve helped provide this man or that woman with a job.”

One of Lamarre’s practices is to stay in touch with Cirque’s employees and their needs. He travels around the world to see each show every year, talking with the artists and crew to boost morale and to gather information first-hand in the field.

“I sit in the kitchen to talk with them about where we are as an organization,” Lamarre says. “It’s easy to sit in an office in Montreal and say we should cut this and that, but to go on site and see what their life is like is important. It’s important to understand the reality of your employees. I believe in the importance of dialogue.”

Managers who listen are appreciated, but those who hear and act on what has been said are the ones who inspire employees to follow their lead. Lamarre shares a story of a Chinese artist who wanted to talk to him because she had a special request. After working for the company for 10 years, she wanted a corporate jacket.

Lamarre delivered, and the following year, she greeted him with her own gift — a scarf, given with a hug and tears.

In a global economy, companies that understand a diversity of cultures and thought emerge with products that appeal to the widest audiences. At Cirque du Soleil, the 1,500 artists on stage, and thousands more behind the scenes, come from around the world, with English being the most common language. Still, many translators are required.

“Our company is a United Nations,” Lamarre says. “We have an average of 17 nationalities in each show. People feel we’re a citizen of the world, and we try to implement ways of living that illustrate that.”

For example, Cirque’s successful touring show “Dralion” has a large contingent of Chinese artists. To ensure a pipeline of top-notch Chinese artists for that and other  shows, Cirque du Soleil works with the Chinese government to create relationships with Chinese circus troupes and schools. To ensure fairness in the eyes of employees, the company goes one step further.

“We negotiate with the government to make sure the artists get paid what everyone gets, even if we have to pay a surcharge to the troupe or government for the partnership,” Lamarre says. “We have to be respectful of all the cultures.”

To ensure that new ideas are always streaming into the company’s imagination, a team of three researchers are charged with touring the world and surfing the Web to identify what’s happening in fashion, architecture, music, and the entertainment industry.

Every three months, the team presents what they’ve found to the company’s top artistic creators, fueling ideas for new shows.

“How can you understand what the new values and trends are, unless you look broadly?” Lamarre asks.

Planning for the future can be seen most clearly in the way Cirque du Soleil approaches the careers of its artists. Since their performers travel the world, the company operates traveling schools for the artists’ children.

“It costs us a bloody fortune, but it’s worth it,” Lamarre says. “None of the kids will leave the tour without a high school degree if they’re under 18. For the Chinese and Romanian artists, they’d like their kids to be trained to be circus performers.

“We’re willing to do that, but their kids have to study in school first. If they decide to train their children as circus performers in their free time, that’s fine. But if you want to tour with us, your kids have to study.”

Lamarre says Cirque du Soleil recognizes that performers cannot be on stage forever, so artists are urged to develop skills in the company’s Crossroads program that will result in other jobs when their day in the spotlight is done.

“This way, they can continue to work for us,” Lamarre says. “We need trainers, public relations people, and others around the world, so you’re not going home without knowing what you’ll do next. We value people’s experience. If I have a vice president who’s been training for 10 to 15 years, he understands the performer’s reality. It all comes back to benefit the organization.”

Clearly, doing right by its employees has fueled continued success for the company. With that kind of management philosophy, who wouldn’t want to join the circus?