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Cirque du Soleil CEO Daniel Lamarre (Christinne Muschi/Christinne Muschi for The Globe and Mail)
Cirque du Soleil CEO Daniel Lamarre (Christinne Muschi/Christinne Muschi for The Globe and Mail)

Talking Management

Daniel Lamarre: A CEO's high-wire act Add to ...

Karl Moore: This is Karl Moore of the Desautels Faculty of Management at McGill University, Talking Management for The Globe and Mail. Today I am on McGill's campus with Daniel Lamarre who is the CEO of Cirque du Soleil, one of Canada's great global exports. Good morning Daniel.

Daniel Lamarre: Good morning.

KM: In business we talk about having superstar employees, a top partner, a [creative accountant] You work with one of the truly great creative geniuses of the world, we saw him up in space. How do you manage, how do you work with Guy Laliberté?

DL: People think that it is very difficult because obviously Guy is a character; he is a special type of guy. The reality is that Guy understands business and he understands that that is what he wants to do in life. So we are very complementary because everything that he likes to do I do not and everything that I like to do he does not. That is why we are working well together. The first thing that you have to do when you work with someone like that, you have to like and love artists because Guy is an artist. If you are not able to work with an artist, you are in the wrong place.

KM: Are you an artist?

DL: I am not an artist myself, I am a groupie. I love artists. I have always been impressed by what artists are doing; I cannot do it myself but my job is to support them because I think that what they do is very unique and it is not everybody that can be or pretend to be an artist.

KM: What are some of the key ideas that you as a manager of talent have in your mind?

DL: Again, if you want to reinvent the content, because it is what we do - every new show has to be different from the others - what I have to do as a manager is to make sure that the artist has all of the freedom that they can have to create something new. There is not a magic recipe at Cirque du Soleil, we have to reinvent ourselves all of the time. That is a lot of pressure on their shoulders. First I have to understand that. Second, I have to make sure that the pressure is not too big, that they can have freedom and they can come up with new ideas.

KM: The Cirque started many years ago and has had enormous global success; how do you manage all of those shows, all over the world? It sounds very complex to me.

DL: Yes, it is obviously very different because we are celebrating our twenty-fifth anniversary this year, and we are close to five thousand employees. As we speak I have 40 shows running around the world at the same time. Only in terms of replacement of artists for next year, I will need 250 new artists just to replace artists that are in our actual shows. It means that we have to have this infrastructure just of casting, travelling around the world. We have 50 scouts, travelling around the world all of the time to pick the best artistic talents that there are in the world today.

KM: How do you find them?

DL: The scouts are going everywhere. They are going to gymnastic world championships; they are going to the Chinese Circus art school; they are going in Russia. They are going everywhere. Last year for instance, we received 50,000 videos of artists that wanted to join Cirque du Soleil. Now the brand is always working as our casting department.

KM: What do you look for in a Cirque du Soleil performer?

DL: We are looking for someone that can bring a performance that will [be]different than one that exists in normal traditional circus because we are a different type of show so we need to have, again, different types of artists.

KM: Part of Cirque du Soleil is breaking the rules, getting outside of the box. On the other hand, we cannot have anarchy. How do you maintain that balance between the rules and breaking rules?

DL: It is an interesting challenge. In one way, as you said, we need to have the minimum of discipline for the organization to work. At the same time the artists need freedom. It is a fine line between the two. I guess that is my job, to define that line. Again, Guy is always there to make sure that I do not become too traditional and I am there to make sure that the projects that he is developing will be manageable for me.

KM: You do not want a creative accountant though, do you?

DL: No. It is against our policy. We want to make sure that everything that we do - and I say that to our employees - it does not matter if you work in finance, in HR, you have to make sure that whatever you do it has to contribute to the success of the show of Cirque du Soleil. So it is a different approach every day.

KM: How often is Guy in the office, or is he out travelling looking for ideas? What per cent of the time does he spend in the office?

DL: Guy hates to be in the office. He loves to travel, he loves to see shows, he loves to meet with artists, he loves to find new treasures in terms of artistic content. So Guy will probably turn up a couple of times a month just to review some shows that are in development. We are talking to each other probably daily just updating each other about where we are going with this organization but he is not the type of guy that would like to be seated in a boardroom.

KM: What do you like to do?

DL: What I like to do is develop the company. When, for instance, I had confirmed to deal with the [surviving]Beatles, it took me three years to negotiate that deal. To me it was a huge achievement. Right now we are launching a new [Elvis tribute]show … in Las Vegas. Developing those types of contracts with some key icons, for me it is an amazing challenge.

KM: This has been Karl Moore of the Desautels Faculty of Management at McGill University, Talking Management for The Globe and Mail today with Daniel Lamarre who is the CEO of Cirque du Soleil, one of Canada's great exports to the world.

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