Cirque du Soleil’s Daniel Lamarre on Creative Leadership
Without creativity, there is no business. That is an idea that has guided Cirque du Soleil Executive Vice-Chairman Daniel Lamarre as he helped grow and pilot a billion-dollar business through stormy waters. In his new book ‘Balancing Acts‘, Daniel shares what it takes for anyone, regardless of position or industry, to embrace the value of creative leadership. Because Cirque du Soleil is an unusual business. It has no physical products, no factories or inventory, no pricey real estate. Instead, they have something far more valuable: the limitless creativity that springs from the minds, hearts, and bodies of their artists. Welcome to SuperCreativity Podcast, Daniel Lamarre.
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James Taylor 0:00
I’m James Taylor and you’re listening to the super creativity podcast a show dedicated to inspiring creative minds like yours. Without creativity, there is no business. That is an idea that has guided Cirque du Soleil Executive Vice Chairman Daniel Lamarre, as he helped grow and pilot a billion-dollar business through some stormy waters. In his new book Balancing Act, Daniel shares what it takes for anyone, regardless of position or industry, to embrace the value of creative leadership. Because Cirque du Soleil is an unusual business. It has no physical products, no factories or inventory, no pricing real estate. Instead, they have something far more valuable. The limitless creativity that springs from the minds hearts and bodies of their artists, please welcome to the super creativity podcast, Daniel Lamar, welcome, Daniel. Thank you, thank you for the invitation. I really appreciate it. So before we get into some of the kind of wider lessons that you share, in this book, I’d like to take us back to a time maybe it was been filled like such a good time for you, I’m sure many people in your team, but March 2020, you’re the CEO of soda Sully, over a billion dollars in revenues. 44 Productions happening can simultaneously worldwide 505,000 employees. And then COVID hit what happened next. And I’d love if you could share any lessons that you had learned earlier in your career that you kind of brought forward and applied when dealing with this crisis.
Cirque du Soleil Executive Vice Chairman Daniel Lamarre
Daniel Lamarre 1:31
Yeah, that was horrible. Obviously, on March 13, which was a very Black Friday, all our touring shows were shut down. And then I walk home. And I remember saying to my wife, if Vegas remain open, we’re okay, because we have seven shows in Las Vegas. And then the following day, March 14, boom, Las Vegas is totally shut down. And then, you know, within 48 hours, I have to go back to our employees, and I’m very close to our employees. But I couldn’t meet them, I had to go do it through zoom. Because it you know, it was forbidden to meet with all those 1000s of employees. And that was heartbreaking for me to announce to them through zoom, that I had no choice then let them go. And the one thing I’ve learned through my experience with them, you know, even if they were not officially employees of Cirque du Soleil, we decided to stay in touch with them. And I think that’s the best thing we did. Because when we were ready to start our operation again, they still feel that they were our employees, and they were ready to come back.
James Taylor 2:46
And then in your earlier life before Cirque du Soleil you worked in PR you have a lot of famous companies, Johnson Johnson and Molson so that obviously there are some times there are some things you were able to kind of bring from that time because many of those organizations had a pretty big crisis that you can bring into the sector so late.
Learning From Major Crises In The Past
Daniel Lamarre 3:06
Yeah, you’re right. Having had the opportunity to work on the major crises in the past, I could go back to what I had learned from it, which is first and foremost, to remain calm and focused, because your people are looking at you, as the leader of the organization, to see how you’re going to react. Second, be very transparent, transparent, not to try to, you know, sugarcoat what’s going on. And I’ve been very transparent all along with our employees by telling them the truth. And then I would say, remain focused on the solution all along, you know, 15 months without shows, the only thing that matters to me is how can I bring back this organization and bring back our shows, and that helped me also to communicate better with our employees. And also tell them that, you know, there is a message of hope here, because the brand of Cirque du Soleil is so strong, we’re not going to disappear. And that’s what I’ve learned in my past experience and crisis management. And I think that’s something that helped me go through the most amazing the most terrible crisis that I have ever been through before.
James Taylor 4:29
So now Cirque du Soleil is kind of going into the future shows opening the world is thankfully starting to open again, including places like Las Vegas as well. So one of the things I thought was really nice about the structure of the book, why I encourage people to go and get their copy of the book, is the format of the book reminded me a little bit like the Joseph Campbell, the kind of hero’s journey and I know you’re not you’re probably not gonna call yourself a hero, but basically in terms of the structure. It starts with you working in a very kind of corporate Canadian culture. And that’s an ordinary world, I guess. And then you enter this strange new world of Cirque du Soleil. If you go back to that very first day in Cirque du Soleil when you came on board with, and you were there with, with GI Lalibela. And you mentioned in the book, that there was a couple of things that happened on that first day, you suddenly realized I’m not in Canvas anymore. And there was one thing which I read, and it really kind of like, blew me away. And it really surprised me. You were assigned your own clown. So tell us to culture? Well, that first day?
Finding A Symbol Of Purpose
Daniel Lamarre 5:41
Yeah, yeah, it’s, uh, you know, gi wanted me to remember who I was working for. And I’m working for an entertainment company. And, and I’m not suggesting to anybody to hire a clown. But I’m suggesting to anybody to find a symbol that reminds your employees and yourself, you know, what your purpose in life, and the clown, then Gi, as affected to me was a good remember for me, but it also helped me to, you know, have a great relationship with our employees, because the clown could do fun of me, and employees felt good about it, but the symbol the nature of who we are, that was the clear signal to me, but also to the entire organization.
James Taylor 6:33
So I have to ask, what was the clown doing? How was he breaking you out of your, your corporate, or corporate ways?
Daniel Lamarre 6:40
First of all, every time we have, you know, a town hall, with all our employees, the clown called Madame zoo, she will be the one introducing me. And she will make some jokes and the employee will laugh. And then I will play with her. And it kind of relaxed the atmosphere. And it kind of fight again, the traditional IR key that the bus should be, you know, stubborn and the bus should be an egomaniac the fact that I accepted when the clown to make fun of me, make me more empathic for our employees.
James Taylor 7:23
Now that relationship with ghee, as I kind of read through the book, obviously was a very, very important one we often hear in, in creativity, this idea of creative peers Jobs and Wozniak, you know, Pierre and Marie Curie, Lennon and McCartney, and obviously, you worked extensively with McCartney. And so in your own creative work, I’m assuming that the GI was that creative pair for you? And then what you were doing? So can you maybe share a little bit about what that relationship actually looked like? It was probably a pretty unconventional relationship. I believe it even called you for a business meeting from space.
Daniel Lamarre 7:55
Yeah, he did. Yeah, you’re right. That was a very, very special relationship. He was an entrepreneur and a visionary. And, and what I’ve learned early in the game with him, is when you work with the visionary, you’ll never say no. I always said, yes, we’ll evaluate it. And then we will do the analysis and come back to him and tell him your great idea. Makes sense, let’s do it, or your great idea is great, but it doesn’t make sense. Because financially it won’t work. And, and that attitude kept us, you know, very close to each other. And, and you’re right, when you went to the space, for me, that was the ultimate. But then again, while he was there, we have produced a live show from the International Space Station. And he never forgot how crazy those ideas have always had a purpose. And the purpose of that show that we did through the International Space, was to promote his new cause, one drop, to help resolve the issue of water in the world.
James Taylor 9:06
Now, what was about kind of collaborative kind of creativity, you speak in the book about a land deal to work with the Beatles and put in that amazing Cirque du Soleil show around the Beatles music? I’m wondering, you know, you talked in the book about, you’ll be in a lot of pretty high powered meetings with a lot of pretty kind of serious people, then you kind of get into that meeting with, with some of the, you know, the remaining Beatles as well as your co I’m wondering, was there anything that you learned from them in terms of how, as a team, you observed, how they what you actually ended upbringing into the way that you worked with your team?
Daniel Lamarre 9:42
Yeah, the lesson there is the collective. I could see the way they were respecting each other that it was a collective. It was not a one-man or a one-woman show. And it’s the same thing at Cirque de Soleil. And that’s how we could work together. Because cert never been a one-man or a one. A woman shows it has always been a collective. And if you want to create, at the end of the day, a new show, you need at least 20 creators working altogether. And then after that, you have to add the artists and the technicians. And if you don’t understand that the creative process is the ultimate collaboration between a lot of creative people, then if you don’t understand that, I think you don’t understand what creativity is all about.
James Taylor 10:31
Now, can you go into I guess, I’d be interested to get your thoughts on this. You know, we often hear in, in the creative industries and advertising and the arts and media, we this word creativity is used much more were often in the traditional business community, we hear innovation. And with something like Cirque du Soleil, I see your kind of embodying both of these things. I’m interested, what’s your take on the difference between creativity and innovation? Or do you see there is a difference?
Creativity VS Innovation
Daniel Lamarre 11:03
There is, creativity is the first step that will bring you to innovation. So you have first and foremost, to create an environment that is creative, you have to define a mandate that will mobilize all your people behind creativity. But innovation comes from having a clear, creative mandate. So if you define to someone I want to, you know, deliver the new car, then if you define the mandate, it will, it will give you the road to innovation. But the process itself is a creative process that will help you know engineers, creators designers to define the new innovation that you are looking for.
James Taylor 11:56
Something you do this I think very interesting as Cirque du Soleil is this idea called the SEALAB apart, I wish that you call it a creative watch. And so can you tell us a little bit secret, because I think this is something that that may be more companies and other industries can learn from?
Daniel Lamarre 12:14
Yeah, you know, people don’t realize how much r&d We do at Cirque du Soleil. And unfortunately, we’re not a huge corporation like Microsoft or others. So we don’t do fundamental research. But we do research that will conduct us to the new act, new technology. And the reason why we’re able to do that is that we partner, we have been partnering with Microsoft, we have been partnering on Samsung with other technologies. We’re also partnering with some universities. But we’re always partnering in projects where we know that the outcome is going to be found on the stage of a certain SLA.
James Taylor 13:01
And the creative watch part, in particular, that was you’ve kind of got one part of sealer, which is people whose job is busy to go out there, find the latest technology, latest things, latest trends, what’s happening. But then you’ve got this thing called Creative watch, which operates in a slightly different way.
Daniel Lamarre 13:17
Yeah, again, you know, for us, we like to put some pressure on the creative process. And we do the same thing in r&d. So we have some very, you know, disciplined checkpoints to see if what we are developing is in the right direction of what the mandate was. Because again, we cannot afford to waste too much time, because we have a very straight deadline, because the new show is going to happen six months from now or a year from now. And then you have to make sure that the creative process that you’re going through, or the research process you’re going through is evolving at a pace that will achieve your ultimate objective, which is to bring some of those initiatives, some of those innovations on the stage of Cirque.
James Taylor 14:12
So you must be quite excited about we’re hearing things like Metaverse, obviously, there was augmented reality stuff first. Now things like the metaverse, is that something you’re you’re interested in? Or you’re kind of looking at in terms of how so can operate in that in that sandpit? Or are you still very much focused on the in-person experience?
Daniel Lamarre 14:31
Yeah, first of all, if you’re Microsoft, or if you’re Facebook, you can afford to be at the beginning of the wave or even create yourself a wave, we cannot afford that. So the way for us to do it is by observing what they do, and partnering with them, and then again, see how it’s going to you know, impact what you do. At the end of the day. We will remain an alive organization that is going to put all its emphasis on human performances. So when we’re looking at technology, we’re looking at how it’s going to enhance the human performance that we are presenting.
James Taylor 15:18
Can you give me an example of that, that’s one of those performers that are performing at your event, or maybe the technical team, how they can start to use different types of technologies to enhance or to augment their own creativity?
Daniel Lamarre 15:34
Yeah, I remember one day one of our creators came in my office, and he says, oh, Danielle, I’ve heard there is this teacher in Switzerland, that has developed some drone that we could integrate into our show. And I said That’s very interesting. Go there, meet the guy and bring it back. And at the end of the day, he has invented a new type of dance between human performance and drone. And it has changed the entire Sinagua of that act and made it more modern. Also, fun because people, you know, we’re surprised and surprising the crowd is also a mandate we have at every new show because you have to make sure that whatever we present, people will see it for the first time. That’s the challenge of bringing technologies that will work with human performance. But also we’ll surprise our fans.
James Taylor 16:33
I guess it’s like some like Seth Godin, who had in the show a little while ago, we talked about creating remarkable experiences, someone goes there and they remark to friends, when they get home, see this, you got to go and see this show. It was incredible. This thing happened, you got to go and see it.
Daniel Lamarre 16:46
Yeah, that’s the thing, they want to word of mouth to remain the most important marketing tool for us. And as you just said, you know, and we measure that, by the way, we’re very analytical, we measure how people are going to recommend our shows to their friends and family. That’s the most important measurement for us.
James Taylor 17:10
In the book, you talk about this idea that which I’m very much in agreement with as well, that creativity is a team sport. Can you share with us how the team works together? Really, from this maybe an idea of a new show, from its initial inception to kind of creating that skeleton, to then kind of checking on progress that you call them? checkpoints? And then finally, to iterate in the show, once the show does go live can continue to develop and iterate on it? Can you just kind of talk about how the especially how the team works together on something like that?
Creativity Is A Team Sport
Daniel Lamarre 17:40
Yeah, first of all, the core team that started the process is, is treat people it’s the director is the creative director, and the production director. And then we will give them a clear mandate of the type of shows and the type of artistic content that we’re looking for, then those three people will come back to us with a first spirit of what the show could look like. Then if we like it, they continue. And then they add to their team 17 other people. So the full creative team is 20 people, you know, costume designer, music directors, and autograph all of that. And so those 20 people then define the content of the Show More precisely, and then come back to us there is a checkpoint to make sure that the first direction that we agreed upon, is still there. And then when we Greenlight that, then they’ll start the casting process. And then they will propose to us what we call an acrobatic skeleton of the type of acts that they will like to bring to the show. And then piece by piece, they will show us the choreography, they will show us the music, they will show us the costume design. And then when we’re satisfied with all of this, they will hire the cast, and then they will start the rehearsal. While we’re in rehearsal mode, we’re still going there and checking to make sure that what was promised to us is happening on stage. And we would do changes up to the last minute if it’s going to enhance the fan experience.
James Taylor 19:37
Something I know Ed Catmull talks about in his book Creativity Inc was how films are going through with Pixar going through different stages of production. There’s all the team have to work together to focus on whoever’s part has been focused on at that stage or that stage of the production, and then it moves to the next team and the next team and so on. And he said one of the things he said was about the importance of getting there He said, there’s a danger, you can just hire lots of really, really talented, really, really smart people. And it doesn’t work. And he said, there’s this, there’s almost like a, like a chef, you know, having been able to know that this, this, this spice will work really well with this thing that he said, it’s almost like chemistry as well. So who’s responsible for ensuring the chemistry of all those teams and all those people work?
Daniel Lamarre 20:25
Well, it’s the leader at the time, it was gi himself. Now it’s the vice president of creation. And that’s a role to supervise, almost on a day-to-day basis, what is happening. The other thing that is important also, and it’s part of our creative culture, is at the end of the day, what should prevail is the best idea. So we like to say to people doesn’t matter if the idea comes from you or for me, at the end of the day, the best idea should prevail. And in order to achieve that, you have to simulate this idea of debate, people shouldn’t be afraid of debating if they don’t agree. And yes, at the end of the day, if ever, they need a referee that will be asked, but most of the time debating, make sure that the best idea will prevail, the best idea will emerge. And that’s something to me, it’s very, very important to avoid any political game. That is not a way to create and be creative.
James Taylor 21:33
So as a leader, what kind of guidance do you get maybe to new people coming in and maybe on the HR side as well, to ensure because it’s, I mean, you’re working with all these incredibly creative people from the people backs behind the stage backstage in the headquarters. So people are traveling around the world doing these shows. And I’m guessing when someone can put forward an idea, they think this is a brilliant idea. This is the best idea ever. And it’s very easy to kind of like crush someone’s creativity and their idea a little bit too early in the process. So are there any kind of guidelines or guardrails that give in to how to give feedback to people? So it’s doing it in an empowering way. But also, it’s being honest, there’s being focused?
Daniel Lamarre 22:16
Yeah, the first thing is, we don’t turn down ideas from the get-go. We like to say to someone, I’m not sure about your idea, prove me wrong. And then and then allowed someone to go to the next step, because you never know, maybe the way it is presented, doesn’t really reflect the value of that idea. So you’re there to encourage people, you’re not there to discourage people. So, therefore, the best way for you to encourage an idea, even if you’re not in agreement with this idea is to give a break to someone give the opportunity to someone to prove that the idea that he or she has, you know, could work in your show.
James Taylor 23:02
How do you have your own sake me? How do you keep your own thinking fresh? How do you? How can you stay inspired? What influences Do you try to surround yourself with?
Nurturing Own Creativity.
Daniel Lamarre 23:12
Yeah, first and foremost, I like to be surrounded by people that are stronger than I am. I like to be surrounded by people that are very, very different from I am. We don’t need to Danielle, you know, we need one Danielle, and we need a James and we need Mary Claude, we need a lot of different types of people that we are complementary from from from each other. The other thing I like to do is I like to consult a lot. I like to see a lot of shows, I like to see a lot of movies, I like to see a lot of TVs, I like to spend time for me to be to nurture my own creativity.
James Taylor 23:53
So on that I know you’ve you’re living in one of the most beautiful parts of the world in Canada. And they’re in Quebec, and you’ve got some beautiful nature there as well. Is nature something that kind of inspires you? Or is it something where you can go to let your brain stop and rest for a little bit? Or is a place you go to no idea just kind of come to you out in nature? Or is it you prefer being around people? That’s what your ideas come to you?
Daniel Lamarre 24:16
Yeah, we have a huge park, close to our creative Center, our head office. And I would like to, you know, when I’m exhausted or when I when it’s not working the way it should in my own mind. I’d love to go to the park and jog. Because jogging is more than physical. Its mental. And I like to go and jog when I have an issue. Because sometimes for whatever reason by jogging, boom, the solution emerge. And for me, that’s the way to get fresh.
James Taylor 24:53
And what about technology? I mean in terms of status, are you using lots of incredible technology and creating these amazing shows. But for yourself, What technologies do you use to kind of either free up your time for doing deeper creative thinking or helps augment your own personal creativity?
Technology and Creativity
Daniel Lamarre 25:11
Yeah, I’m not that original. But I spend a lot of time on social media. I think that’s a way you know, But there is a part of social media, which is amazing. And that’s a good way to see what are the trends? What people are watching? What is, you know, the new technology that existed that people will show you. And for me, if I want to, you know, get away from my day-to-day job, it’s a good way, again, to be reenergized.
James Taylor 25:49
So what does the future hold for you? Now, obviously, you’ve changed roles, slightly. sector. So lay, your you’re, you were before COVID happen. You’re too busy speaking. And you have your conference of a famous conference that happens in Montreal, as well. What does the future hold for you?
Future of Cirque du Soleil
Daniel Lamarre 26:06
Yeah, first of all, I’m still there. So I’m going to support the new CEO, stiffener five. And my relationship with him is to keep the good relationship that we have with our key partners, such as MGM Resorts, Disney and Vedanta, and a lot of promoters. But the reality is that he is managing the company on a day-to-day basis, which should allow me a little bit more time to give back. And for me, my book is the first step in that direction. I wish to help, you know, students, I wish to help entrepreneurs by being a little bit more available to them, and hopefully, help them to learn from my own modest learnings of Cirque du Soleil.
James Taylor 26:52
Well, thank you for sharing some of those insights here today. The book Balancing Act is out now we’re gonna have a link here. If you want to learn a little bit more just about you and some of your other things. You mentioned the speaking as well, where’s the best place to go and do that?
Daniel Lamarre 27:07
You know, I have on my own internet site, some examples of some speeches I did. And it’s probably the best place to go to.
James Taylor 27:18
Well, it was a pleasure speaking with you today. Thank you so much for writing this book and putting this book out there. It was a great read. I highly encourage people to go and check out Daniel Amar, thank you so much for coming on the Super creativity podcast.
Daniel Lamarre 27:29
Thank you. Thank you very much. It’s appreciated, James.
James Taylor 27:33
You can subscribe to the super creativity podcast on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, or wherever you get your podcasts while you’re there. Leave us a review. I would really, really appreciate it. I’m James Taylor, and you’re been listening to the super creativity podcast.
Cirque du Soleil Executive Vice-Chairman