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Management For the Cirque’s operational ringmaster, creativity rules

Cirque COO Charles Décarie: ‘Passion is not a management dimension you learn at the MBA school.’

CIRQUE DU SOLEIL

Though every workplace sees its hectic days, Charles Décarie is among the few executives who can honestly say his workplace is a circus.

Fifteen years ago, Mr. Décarie made the switch from software supplier SAP, where he counted Cirque du Soleil among his clients, to the Cirque itself, where he now serves as chief operating officer. Like the international audiences its productions attract, Mr. Décarie watched the organization evolve from its modest roots in rural Quebec to become the largest theatrical production company in the world.

"Imagine for a minute the complexity of selling over 12 million tickets every year – which is equivalent to all Broadway shows combined – managing 70-plus legal entities, 320 bank accounts, 27 banks in 26 countries, 19 currencies, $450-million in foreign exchange on a yearly basis, 1,500 corporate sales tax reports, $63-million in royalties that need to be sent to designers, composers, writers and directors across the planet, managing 16,000 active suppliers across the globe and buying over $450-million in goods and services across the planet, producing 18,000 costume items per year – and that's just a partial list," he said, adding that Cirque du Soleil's 31 original shows have been enjoyed by over 150 million spectators in 300 cities across five continents.

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Mr. Décarie said that when he left his job to join the circus, its productions were limited to the North American market.

"Over the last seven or eight years, we have explored other territories including Latin America, the Middle East, Eastern Europe, now we have an office in Russia, even Northern Africa," he explained from a boardroom in Cirque du Soleil's headquarters in Montreal. In the studio space below, acrobats practise on trampolines to prepare for upcoming shows while costume designers use 3-D models to create outfits for performers residing on every corner of the globe.

While Cirque du Soleil's shows are unlike anything that came before, Mr. Décarie says that, behind the scenes, the organization is run much like any other company, albeit a stranger and more elaborate one.

"Procurement is procurement, the items we're procuring are quite odd in some circumstances, but managing a company like Cirque has a number of similarities to managing other companies," he said.

Like other successful organizations, Mr. Décarie said that Cirque du Soleil's maintains a strong corporate culture.

"You've got to stick to your values and pay a lot of attention to the culture of the organization," he said. "Emotion is required to be successful in an entertainment company like Cirque, because you need to manage artists, and you need to manage people who are far away from home."

Those who have attended a Cirque du Soleil performance often describe it as unlike anything they've ever seen before, but Mr. Décarie is quick to point out that few of its trademark elements are unique. After all, the company cannot claim to have invented dancing, singing, acting, acrobatics, musical performances or clowns.

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"We revolutionize it by assembling theatrical events and acts in a way people have never seen," he said. "The assembly and the visual signature of Cirque du Soleil really took people by surprise."

Mr. Décarie said that the Cirque continues to build on its visual signature around the world by upholding the same creative spirit that was responsible for the company's earliest successes 30 years ago.

"I've realized that this organization has been driven by passion, and passion is not a management dimension you learn at the MBA school," he said.

Mr. Décarie adds that over the past 15 years, he's learned the importance of ensuring that business decisions don't stand in the way of creativity. While Cirque du Soleil has seen its fair share of challenges over the years, including the layoff of 400 employees in 2013 after the closing of a couple of less-than-successful shows, he believes it is vital to separate its creative energy from the day-to-day business operations.

"Sometimes companies go through rough patches, sometimes shows aren't that great, sometimes economical conditions are hurting us and there are a slew of decisions that need to be made to protect the business and maintain the business, but the thing that you do not want to alter is passion and creativity," he said. "Creativity is something that's very fragile. You can kill an idea in a minute with a business decision."

Mr. Décarie argues that it is the responsibility of managers to keep the financial pressures away from the creative process to ensure that it flourishes independently.

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"Despite all the performance indicators and financial pressures, how can you, as a good manager in this company, protect the flourishing of this creation? How do you protect your artistic conceptions from the daily tensions in the market, the sales figures?" he asked. "You've got to be careful of that. That's an important lesson I've learned from this company."

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