Balancing Acts
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Balancing Acts

Unleashing the Power of Creativity in Your Work and Life

Daniel Lamarre

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eBook - ePub

Balancing Acts

Unleashing the Power of Creativity in Your Work and Life

Daniel Lamarre

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About This Book

In this leadership memoir, take a step backstage at Cirque du Soleil.

Vice Chairman Daniel Lamarre shares his experiences leading the awe-inspiring organization, and teaches readers what it takes for anyone, regardless of position or industry, to embrace the value of creative leadership.

Without creativity, there is no business. At the core of Cirque du Soleil's lavish, multi-million-dollar productions is Vice Chairman Daniel Lamarre, who has mastered the ability to bring business and creativity together across multiple languages and cultures in a way that has never been seen before. The secrets he shares in Balancing Acts are rooted in tremendous faith in your own creative skills, even if you are convinced you have none, and those of the sharpest minds within your organization.

In this book, Daniel shares the untold stories behind Cirques biggest shows, including Beatles Love, Michael Jackson One, the aquatic marvel, O, and many more. Through these tales of triumph and trials, he will teach you:

  • How to shatter the perceived limitations standing in the way of your ability to think creatively and innovatively;
  • When to step up and when to step back so that your team can create a masterpiece that doesn't break the bank;
  • How in using the methods Daniel has uncovered, modern companies with entrenched bureaucracies can bring creativity and business together to foster innovation; and
  • How to use creative thinking to lead your organization to new heights.

Whether you work for one of the most creative organizations on the planet like Cirque du Soleil, in a stuffy corporate job, or somewhere in between— Balancing Acts is filled with principles that can strengthen and accelerate any business on the planet.

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CHAPTER 1

FROM A SMALL TOWN TO TRAVELING THE WORLD

My life—and my whole approach to business—changed forever one morning in November 2000, when I received a phone call.
“Daniel, how are you?”
It was Guy Laliberté, the founder of Cirque du Soleil.
“I’m doing great,” I said. And truly I was, having been CEO of one of Canada’s largest television networks for the past four years and enjoying it immensely.
“No, no, you can do better!” said Guy, practically screaming into the phone. The big conglomerate that had recently bought my company would make my life awful—miserable, he shouted. “You have to get out right away!”
“Whoa, whoa, whoa,” I said. That’s classic Guy (“Ghee,” as we Québécois pronounce it)—impulsive, funny, dramatic, and, at this moment, rather confusing. “What are you talking about?”
“I had this amazing flash last night,” he said. “You are going to join the circus!”
I laughed, unsure of what to say. “Listen, I just want to know,” he went on. “Are you at least open to discussing it?”
I had a thousand reasons to say no. First, I barely knew Guy. We had some interactions when my television network, the TVA Group, bought the rights to broadcast Cirque shows. And years before, my public-relations firm had done a short job for him. Like most people in Quebec, I knew Guy was an eccentric musician and fire-breather who started Cirque du Soleil in the mid-1980s with a ragtag group of street performers in Montreal. But that was about it.
Plus, his timing was terrible. At forty-seven, I was in the prime of my career in the media business, making a good salary with plenty of stock options. I had just bought a beautiful house on a lake outside of Montreal. Why would I jeopardize all that?
And yet, something told me to meet with Guy and hear him out.
Three weeks later, I joined the circus.
I am not, by nature, a risk-taker. Growing up poor in the small industrial town of Grand-Mère, Quebec, had made me determined to never have to worry about money the way my parents did. So, after graduating from Ottawa University, getting married, and having two children, I gave up my plan to be a newspaper reporter and settled into a safer, more lucrative career in public relations, advertising, and later, television. Since my college days acting in a theater troupe, I’ve always loved being around artists. But in my career, I never imagined being anything other than a successful, conventional businessman.
Then along came Guy, inviting me to become Cirque’s president of New Ventures with a path to eventually succeed him as chief executive. As I thought about his offer, everyone close to me said I was crazy to even consider it. Cirque was a much smaller company then, still trying to prove itself and only a bad show or two from folding its tents for good.
But I was surprised to find, stirring within me, a long-dormant craving for adventure. I had always been intrigued by how Cirque created its astonishing shows, especially O, the Las Vegas hit that converted the Bellagio Hotel and Casino stage into a huge water tank. How on earth did they turn such wild ideas into a profitable, growing business? I could sense that this move—in addition to costing me plenty of stock options—would force me out of my comfort zone and into a brand-new world of possibility, a prospect I found both electrifying and terrifying. Wracked with indecision, I put Guy off as long as I could until I finally shocked even myself by blurting out, “Yes, yes! Let’s do this!”
A few weeks later, as I walked into company headquarters in Montreal—where all Cirque productions are dreamed up and rehearsed—I had no idea what I was in for. Nobody does, since no background can prepare you for this carnival fun house, with acrobats flying through the air in cavernous studios and bustling workshops filled with mannequins decked out in outrageous costumes. All I could do, I realized, was explore this peculiar place, try to fit in, and hope for the best.
My entry shock was immediate. When I arrived for the press conference announcing my appointment, Yasmine Khalil, then in our marketing department, took one look at my suit and tie and said, “No, no, no, you can’t go out there looking like that! Nobody wears a tie at Cirque du Soleil!”
Guy was not there—he would be appearing via video from London—and that was a good thing. Whenever a suit like me showed up at headquarters wearing a tie, he would grab a pair of scissors and gleefully snip it off. (He always said he planned to make a Hawaiian lei out of the hundreds of fragments he collected.)

FIND YOUR PASSIONATE CORE

It was my first lesson in Cirque’s unusual approach to business management: the biggest priority is to have fun. Without a spirited approach to life, the company’s stage miracles would be impossible. Later, Guy was worried that I was still being too serious, so he assigned me my own personal clown. Her name was Madame Zazou, and she would follow me around, keeping me and other employees in stitches. She would barge into meetings, unannounced, and say, “Aren’t you tired of listening to these boring guys?! Come on, stand up!!” Then she’d lead everybody in a ridiculous exercise class while singing silly songs she made up about whatever show we were working on. By the time she left, everybody was feeling loose, connected, and inspired.
Whenever I tell this story to a business audience, I stress that it should be seen strictly as a metaphor. Obviously, you are not going to hire a clown because that’s not your business. The important point is to ask, “What would be the equivalent for my company?” Madame Zazou taught me that every firm can find creative ways to remind employees of their mission. Finding the passionate core of your company is a critical first step in discovering what those inspiring symbols and rituals might be.
Back at the press conference, Yasmine was not nearly as destructive toward my wardrobe as Guy would have been, but she was no less direct: she yanked off my tie, pulled off my suit coat, and handed me a Cirque du Soleil jacket. When my old boss at TVA, André Chagnon, saw the press conference on television later, he almost didn’t recognize me. “What’s next, Daniel?” he said. “Are you going to start wearing an earring? Maybe a ponytail?”
André was teasing, of course, but I got the point. Maybe taking this job was a big mistake. In my first year, I tried hard—and often failed—to fit in. I was hired for my experience, but my experience kept getting in the way. Several times I wanted to quit. But I hung in there, got tremendous support from Guy, and eventually found my place, working my way up to chief executive nearly six years later, in 2006. Along the way, I had to change the way I think, the way I talk, even the way I dress—a transformation as complete as that of any cast member who puts on the makeup and costumes of our shows. I did not start wearing an earring or grow a ponytail, but I did show up at work in jeans, boots, a casual shirt, blue-tinted glasses, sometimes a colorful ascot. I was surprised to find that adapting to the artistic culture of Cirque, even in small ways, made me more relaxed and productive.
Looking back, it’s funny how my reputation within the company changed. For a long time, I was considered The Boring Businessman while Guy was The Brilliant Artist. We both knew that was an exaggeration—Guy has a shrewd business mind and I’ve always had a passion for the arts. Yet those images persisted. So when Guy decided to sell most of his majority stake in 2015 for a reported $1.5 billion, employees became terribly nervous, afraid that he would not be around to stop our new owners—the private equity firm TPG Capital—from ruining the fertile artistic culture that made Cirque so special.
Fortunately, that never happened. From day one, I told the executives at TPG, “You can come into my office ten times a day if you want, and I’ll give you all the financial and operational information you need. But don’t ever go into the creative department. They have to be left alone to work their magic.”
Drawing that line in the sand made everyone relax. Backstage after a show, cast members would rush up to give me big hugs. At that moment, I knew my conversion into a creative executive was complete.

TAKE CARE OF ONE ANOTHER

Looking back, I am amazed that I ended up running a circus company. After all, the global stages of Cirque du Soleil are a long way from my hometown of Grand-Mère. And yet I’ve been surprised to discover how crucial small-town values are for nurturing creativity and achieving success, not just at Cirque, but in the wider business world as well.
When I was a child, my four siblings and I never felt poor. But we definitely were. When I was six years old, my younger brother and I went to the barbershop and asked the barbers to just cut some of our hair because we only had fifty cents between us. The men laughed, escorted us to our chairs, and gave us the full treatment.
It was an early lesson in generosity and loyalty that I never forgot. Today, many people associate capitalism with selfishness and greed—and understandably so. But when I consider what techniques have worked best for me over the years, I think back to my formative years when citizens of our blue-collar community were always taking care of one another, never hesitating to pitch in when times were tough.
My family wholeheartedly embraced that way of life. When my father became ill with a digestive condition, he spent a year in the hospital, and our family’s financial condition worsened. He was not strong enough to return to his job at a local textile factory, so he decided to change his life in a big way, transforming himself into an office worker to support our family. My dad went back to school, got a job at a bank, and eventually worked his way up to become bank manager, president of the local chamber of commerce, and a respected leader in our town.
It was so inspiring to watch my father climb the ladder. I remember thinking, If he can get that far, maybe I can do something with my life too! Even more impressive was that he never left the less fortunate behind. Even as he struggled to establish himself in a new field, he found the time and energy to raise money for a summer camp for underprivileged children, Camp Lac-en-Coeur (“Lake of Heart”). He truly wanted to help those kids, never expecting that the connections he made among wealthy and powerful benefactors would help his career—and yet they certainly did. (Today it gives me great pleasure to raise money for the very same charity, which named a new building after my father.)
Though my dad was always an inspiration, it wasn’t until I got to Cirque that I understood how the lessons he taught me about community applied to the creative process. Forget the myth of the lone genius changing the world through his or her grand vision. Creativity is a team sport. Just look at Paul McCartney and John Lennon, who needed each other to produce their beautiful music. Or Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, neither of whom could have founded Apple Inc. alone. If you look closely enough, you’ll see that the key to extended success for any creative team lies in a strong sense of allegiance to one another. That’s really the glue that holds everything together.

BUILD RELATIONSHIPS BASED ON LOYALTY

I got a big lesson in the power of loyalty many years later, in my first interactions with Guy Laliberté. It was 1986, when I was a senior partner at National Public Relations in Montreal. Guy showed up at our door looking for help to bring his exciting new circus troupe, then just two years old, to the next level of success.
Though I had never met Guy before, I knew all about Cirque du Soleil. Everybody in Quebec did, ever since it burst onto the scene during the 1984 celebrations of the 450th anniversary of French explorer Jacques Cartier’s voyage to Canada. In those early days, Cirque was still a nonprofit and struggling financially. Guy was hoping my firm could help him attract sponsors and donors from the business world and lobby the government for more arts funding. It was a short job, lasting only a month or two, and when it was over, I presented Guy with our invoice for $25,000.
What I didn’t realize was that during this brief period, Cirque’s finances had gone from bad to worse. Later, I found out that it was nearly bankrupt. When he got the invoice, Guy came to my office and said he was very sorry, but his company simply did not have enough money to pay it.
At that moment, I suppose I could have yelled, demanded immediate payment, and threatened to sue. That never occurred to me. As a Québécois, I was so proud of what Cirque had accomplished, and I wanted to support our local artists any way I could. So I tore up the invoice and dropped it in the wastebasket. “Guy, what you are trying to do is so fantastic,” I said. “I wish you the best of luck.”
It wasn’t until a decade later that I realized how powerful that moment would turn out to be. By the late 1990s, Cirque had become a thriving international brand and I had moved on to the TVA Group television network, a big player in the world of Canadian media. In my role as chief executive officer, I became interested in obtaining the rights to broadcast Cirque shows. When I called Guy, he said he already had a deal with an international television distributor. “I understand,” I said, and we hung up after a friendly exchange.
Neither of us had mentioned the torn-up invoice, but the very next day, I was copied on a note from Guy to his marketing vice president. “This guy helped me years ago,” he wrote. “He wants our TV rights, so do whatever you have to do.”
I was surprised and grateful that Guy had remembered. Eventually, he got the rights back from the distributor and made a deal with us. During the three years that we worked together, Guy and I got to know each other a little better. The final payoff came when he called out of the blue to offer me the job at Cirque that changed my life.
When I tell this story, people often say it was kind of me to forgive Guy’s debt. I don’t look at it that way. Don’t get me wrong. Kindness is an important quality to me, as it should be for any leader. But with my Grand-Mère upbringing, it was simply second nature to show loyalty to a member of our community—in this case, a trailblazing artist who was putting on such amazing shows.
Loyalty, for me, is another way of saying “thinking long term.” A short-term strategy of suing Guy would have forced me to expend so much negative energy, in time and resources, that it would have likely been a losing battle for both of us. Being loyal, on the other hand, meant thinking about the future and the promising relationship that could develop. I never dreamed that forgiving that debt would boomerang back in such a powerful way, of course. I simply liked the idea of a rising star like Guy Laliberté thinking well of me.
This approach has its limits, of course. Had the bill been for millions of dollars, and had I felt that my firm was being mistreated or exploited, I would have done what I had to do to protect the company. I’m certainly not naive. But if the short-term loss is minimal, and there is good faith on both sides, I try to avoid conflict and litigation whenever possible. Some would say that’s being soft. I say it’s being smart.
This has always been my philosophy, but it was nice to learn that research backs me up. In his writings, business psychology expert and Wharton School professor Adam Grant provides a mountain of evidence that people he calls “givers” often end up being more successful than “takers.” Givers who can avoid becoming pushovers or doormats, he found, ultimate...

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