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(Cirque du Soleil)
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The Ladder

Daniel Lamarre: ‘I don’t have a job; I have a lifestyle’ Add to ...

Daniel Lamarre is chief executive officer of Cirque du Soleil.

I began my career as a journalist, and at the time, I would have bet quite a bit of money on staying a journalist for the rest of my life. I was passionate, and that was my ultimate goal. I was tired of just listening and not doing something myself. An opportunity to become a public relations practitioner knocked me off the course of journalism, and I dove right into the business world. I started working for a major corporation as a consultant, and I immensely enjoyed discovering different types of business. I was learning a lot.

When I became the CEO of TVA, Guy Laliberté [former CEO of Cirque du Soleil] had been generous enough to give me the opportunity to get the TV rights of the Cirque du Soleil. Then we got in touch on a more regular basis and he just called me one day out of the blue and he said, “I had this amazing flash last night that you’re going to join the circus.” I burst out laughing and a few weeks later I was running with the circus.

I think I have a strong presence, not by talking a lot but by asking the right questions. As a journalist, I had to be good at interviewing people and listening to people. In management it’s very, very useful because when I meet with my employees, normally I do what the journalist is good at doing: listening. And I learned a lot. As you know, people like to talk, and sometimes I would spend quite a bit of time listening to people and the meeting would end and I had barely spoken, I just listen. But people love it, and because they love it then it’s easier after that to understand where they’re coming from, what they’re looking for. For me, I think it’s a great management tool. to listen to people.

People say that I’m tough to read, but those are the people who don’t really know me. People that are working with me on a day-to-day basis get my signals. I don’t need to impose myself. I don’t scream or lose my temper, because for me that’s a sign of weakness. When you lose your temper, then you lose control of the situation. If you are a leader and you lose control of a situation, then a lot of people around you get really insecure.

You shouldn’t trust yourself too much when you are selling shows to consumers. We do a lot of research to test if our crazy ideas are something that can work with the public. It’s important that we understand how the tastes of people are growing in different manners. And make sure that we meet their expectations. In the case of Cirque du Soleil, their expectations are getting higher and higher. It puts a lot of pressure on our creative team.

I’ve become more creative in my 15 years with the Cirque. I learned a lot from the creators and the artists, and of course, Guy, about their minds, their sensitivities, their passions and how they could go from a white sheet of paper to a developed concept that can work.

You have to get up in the morning and think, “What can I reinvent today?” That’s what we’re doing all the time; we’re always on the lookout for new ideas because it’s important that we can continue to surprise our public. Our big reinvention this year was Avatar. Everyone was concerned about what we could do with such an amazing IP [intellectual property] brought to us by James Cameron, who’s probably the most successful moviemaker in the history of that industry. I was so happy when I read in the Montreal paper the day after the premiere, “Cirque du Soleil is going somewhere else.” I felt so, so good about it.

I don’t have a job; I have a lifestyle. I love my lifestyle. I love travelling. I’m fortunate that my wife can travel with me. I work a lot of hours, and there is no such thing as the weekend because there are always shows performing. I am in communication with the organization all the time. But you have to develop your own way to remain sane in an environment that can get you crazy if you’re not careful. Working out is a good way for me to escape. There is nothing better than having a good bottle of wine on a Friday evening at home or wherever you are.

At the end of the day, you want to be profitable, but that’s not the meaning of life. I was in New York recently because we’re opening our first Broadway show in May. I walked in front of the theatre and saw the billboard on 42nd Street and I was like a kid, I was excited. It brings me a lot of adrenalin. It’s very tough for an artist to earn a good living. Cirque du Soleil is providing a good living to more than 2,000 artists, and if I could supply jobs for 4,000 artists, I’d feel even better. That’s what drives me. I cannot be driven by money alone; that would be a boring life. But to see an artist performing and travelling around the world, oh my God I feel good about that.

I’m from the TV generation. Millennials don’t know what a TV set is any more; they are now working from their screens. We were behind in social media and weren’t reaching out to the millennials before, but we’ve hired a bunch of millennials and kids, literally, to rework our marketing. It’s very important to recognize the fact that you’re not 20 years old any more. and you’re not 40 any more. So, you need to leave younger people to take more room. When I started my career there were older people giving me opportunities. Now it’s my turn to give younger people opportunities. I think you get very, very old if you are not open to other people’s ideas. I think what’s keeping you young is listening to young people and leaving them room to grow in your organization.

Being bilingual is crucial. You just cannot work internationally if you don’t speak English. And speaking French was an advantage because it brought some colour. It’s funny how little people know about French-Canadians outside of Canada. It’s always kind of exotic for people, They’re kind of confused, “Are you French, are you American?” And I’ll say, “We’re all of the above.”

As told to Karl Moore, associate professor, Desautels Faculty of Management, McGill University.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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