Cirque du balancing act
(FORTUNE Magazine) - For Guy Laliberte, managing the team is a real circus. Laliberte is the founder, majority owner, and CEO of Cirque du Soleil, a collection of globetrotting acrobatic troupes. The former street performer - he was a fire-breathing accordionist -founded Cirque with 20 scrappy, ambitious street artists in 1984. Today he has to juggle the demands of creative and financial types and walk a tightrope among the 40 nationalities represented by Cirque's 3,000 employees.
How does the French Canadian get everyone to work under the same tent? Above all, by being the ringleader. His vision for the Montreal-based company settles the toughest disagreements. "Cirque du Soleil depends on its capacity to balance creativity and business," he says. "I don't think anyone calls into question my capacity to manage both aspects."
A key moment came in 1987, when Cirque first broke into the U.S. With profits soaring, the performers wanted the money put back into the show. Laliberte wanted to start a second troupe. "Listen," he recalls saying, "We'll use the profit to start the next troupe, and then reinvest in the show you're working on, and then you can do another new show. Let's build an armada." Since then, the Cirque armada has grown to 13 troupes, traveling to 100 cities on four continents. And every year Laliberte returns 10% of the profits of the $500 million company to the employees.
To ensure the long-term cooperation of the core management team - the COO, CFO, and vice president of creation - Laliberte gave them a percentage of the company when they agreed to commit to ten years' employment. The core team meets ten times a year. Each is expected to travel to find people to establish permanent shows in new countries. "We cannot go out and conquer," Laliberte says. "We need to enroll people that come from those cultures."
By hiring the right people, a skill he credits to his days on the street--"You can get killed pretty fast, so you develop the ability to read people" - Laliberte has built a self-policing corporate culture. "If somebody is trying to take advantage, there's a natural rejection," he explains. "In some ways, we're still a bunch of little street kids."