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?

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