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1997 Global Outlook Optimas Award ProfileBRCirque du Soleil

August 1, 1997
Related Topics: Corporate Culture, Managing International Operations, Global Outlook, Featured Article
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In a darkened, hushed auditorium in Las Vegas, 1,000 people are allowing themselves to be beckoned into another world. While outside, chips clatter, slot machines rattle and the always-blinking lights of the Strip glare on, 1,000 people are in another place. It's a place of fantasy, where acrobats and contortionists reign triumphant, performing the most athletic of feats with the grace of gazelles. It's a place of wonder, where clowns aren't always the genial rubber-faced buffoons of norm, but often are threatening, frightening.

It's a circus on the other side of the looking glass. Cirque du Soleil is a surrealistic sliver of magic more sophisticated and provoking than any of its Big Top rivals.

It's also, to be realistic, a business, employing more than 1,200 people representing 17 nationalities and 13 languages. It's HR's job to take care of everything from touring temps to homesick high-wire walkers. This is no simple task: HR, based at corporate headquarters in Montreal, Quebec, must serve what's basically a moving target. More than two-thirds of the workforce is outside Montreal, many attached to tours. Cirque du Soleil also has offices in Las Vegas and Amsterdam, Netherlands, which combined aren't exactly the most compatible venues for employment issues such as recruitment, compensation and labor laws.

Adding to the degree of difficulty for pulling off this global HR juggling act is a second show to be launched in Las Vegas in 1998, which will require the employee base in Sin City to double.

What keeps a growing, on-the-move worldwide company on track? Careful recruitment and retention, good communication, a respect for cultural differences -- and the reminder that the show must go on.

Run off and join the circus. In 1990, Jennifer Dunne was working as a corporate PR person in Quebec City when a friend working for Cirque du Soleil sneaked her into a show. "I was just floored by it all," she says. "I thought, 'I'm going to change my job. This is what I'm going to do.'" For a year, Dunne volunteered doing PR work for promoters to get her resume in shape for Cirque du Soleil.

At the end of 1991, she saw an ad in the paper for a publicist for Cirque's North American tour, and Dunne was one of the 300-plus people who sent in a resume. On a cold winter day, she slipped out of her workplace and drove three hours to an interview in Montreal. She got the job and has been with the company ever since, first as a publicist on tour, then as an assistant to a tour director and currently as assistant company manager for the Mystere show at Treasure Island Casino in Las Vegas.

Although Dunne's career trajectory isn't typical of every employee at Cirque du Soleil, it's a good example of why the company recruits and retains so smoothly in the rough-and-tumble entertainment industry. It's a bit surprising, considering the company's demands. Because even the people assigned to a permanent office tend to travel a lot, Cirque requires a very particular kind of person-one willing to spend two years touring, or traveling 50 percent of the time; one who delights in the turbulence of the entertainment business; and one who can get along with Japanese, Dutch, Americans and Canadians, as well as any other nationalities that come along.

Part of Cirque du Soleil's recruiting secret is simply its reputation as "the Cadillac of circuses." Just as Dunne sought out employment at Cirque, so do hundreds of others on a regular basis. Marc Gagnon, vice president of HR, estimates the company receives 30 to 50 unsolicited resumes a day through fax, mail or the company's Internet site (www.cirquedusoleil.com). These funnel into a computer bank for easy retrieval.

More often, however, job openings are filled internally. HR posts all jobs-no matter how large or small -- inside. If the company needs a secretary in Europe, HR will post the job in every project and office it has, even the tour in Hong Kong. In 1996, HR posted only 10 percent of its job openings outside the company.

The company does, however, try to stay local in its hiring. In the European headquarters in Amsterdam, for instance, only four of the 39 employees there are Canadians, who Gagnon says will either become Dutch citizens or return home in the next few years.

For tours, of course, the company must bring on some temps (approximately 125 to 150 per city) to work as ushers, and security and ticket people. With six tours a year, that means the company goes through approximately 1,800 temps. HR takes this seriously, because these people will have most of the face-to-face contact with customers. Cirque people interview all temps before they're hired and rank them on an assessment grid for professionalism, attitude and experience. Those who bring good references get preferential treatment.

Gagnon says many temps are so entranced by Cirque du Soleil they end up following tours from city to city. The best are rewarded with permanent jobs.

Although HR at Cirque doesn't directly handle the hiring or retention of performers -- that's under the casting department's umbrella -- it's clear that the company's pro-employee attitude lures artists and encourages them to linger. Gagnon estimates that most performers stay with Cirque three to six years in an industry in which less than a year with one company is the norm.

The company does take good care of its performers. It handles all their housing issues on tours and employs three onsite chefs to meet all the artists' dietary requirements. A separate department also takes care of all artists' tax returns-those on the American tour rack up nine different returns a year, and those in Europe will have six in six different languages.

For its nonperforming workforce, Cirque du Soleil maintains a good mix of both older, long-term employees and young, new hires. Gagnon says the company has absolutely no qualms about hiring a young person with no experience if he or she seems to have the right qualities. "The two owners of this company started it because no one would give them jobs," he laughs. "They were too young and had no experience. So we do hire people too young with no experience because we remember where we came from ... If we match that kid with someone of more experience, we have a nice, necessary tension. It's like tight-rope walking. If it's not tight enough, you'll kill yourself; if it's too tight, you'll kill yourself. We have a nice tension."

Dunne was one of those young employees hired from outside the company, and the interviewing process she went through shows just how careful Cirque du Soleil is in hiring the right people. After braving her three-hour drive on winter roads to get to the interview, Dunne ran a gauntlet of questions from five Cirque employees. "When a person applies for a touring position, it's not just a job, but a way of life," explains Dunne. "Not just anyone will want to pick up for two years and live on the road with a bunch of artists."

Dunne found the queries to be, accordingly, less about her professional experience than her personal characteristics: What are her hobbies? How much free time does she like to have? How would she describe herself?

In the second interview weeks later, several more Cirque people joined the interviewing process, posing a lot of "what if" and "how would you handle this" scenarios. Dunne handled the scenarios well and got the job over a candidate with more experience. "I was completely ecstatic," she remembers. "I was walking around in the clouds for two years."

Cirque du Soleil is an extremely accommodating employer for those it deems worth holding onto. Dunne was one of those. At the end of 1994, after a two-year touring stint, Dunne was ready to move out of PR. She wrote her immediate supervisor in HR to let him know her interest. Less than a month later, Dunne became an assistant tour director, acting as the advance person in the cities where the circus would tour, applying for permits, smoothing out relations with the cities and handling lodging for the 120-plus cast and crew.

By June 1996, Dunne had spent almost five years touring and was ready to settle down. So she wrote down her goals for the upcoming year and sent them to Gagnon and the general managers of Las Vegas and Asia. Each of those managers in turn spent several hours talking with Dunne about her goals. Shortly afterward, Dunne, a native Canadian, signed on as the assistant company manager in Las Vegas to help get the company ready for the second show starting there in 1998. "They let me have room to get my feet wet here, and then probably move into another position in the next two years," she says. "I'm in love with this company."

Let's talk. The folks at Cirque du Soleil are a chatty bunch -- it's almost a corporate policy, and it's the reason that problems are addressed and fixed so quickly worldwide. The amazing thing about the company is that its upward communication is equally as strong and well-developed as its downward communication. (How many companies can you think of in which an employee like Dunne can write a letter to the heads of each region and fully expect an immediate response?)

Communication becomes a global conversation between employees and executives through the company's three publications, Hand to Hand, The Ball and Under the Bleachers. Hand to Hand, which comes out every two weeks, contains corporate information: a new project opening, a new tour starting, as well as a calendar of Cirque activities around the world.

The Ball, seven years' strong, elicits employee news from around the globe. Some employees will write in about an adventure in Amsterdam, others to congratulate an artist who played 500 shows straight and others to announce a move to the United States.

A column called "Culture Shock" allows employees to detail their experiences in different lands. The opinions are generally quite frank. A recent commentary from an employee stationed in Japan read: "People here are courteous -- too courteous. They get bogged down in apologies and polite forms."

Benoit Quessy, internal communications director, started The Ball in 1990 as a link between the head office in Montreal and the company's then sole tour, which was in North America. "Now it links people all around the world," he says. "When the copies come out, everybody stops working just to get this information from other parts of the world. I'm quite proud to say that I'm the editor-in-chief of an international publication."

Every other month, employees grab their new copies of The Ball and turn to a column called "BYOB -- Be Your Own Bitch," in which workers can complain, gripe, quibble and rib as much as they want, uncensored by managers. Often the column features strings of inside employee jokes.

Sometimes the viewpoints featured in BYOB can sting a little, but Gagnon thinks it's all for the better. "This is part of the way we do things," he says. "I think the best way to get people to react positively is to get the bad things out. When we read [an employee wrote,] 'The Dutch are treated better than the Canadians,' we get information that's quite useful. If nobody talks about it, it will just blow up someday and we'll have a bigger problem."

Under the Bleachers is the company's European paper, which is published in Amsterdam. Quessy helped set up the paper in 1995 but has no involvement, except to read it when a new copy comes out. "They do it on their own. It's a different culture, a different way to express themselves," he explains.

Still, Under the Bleachers is just as irreverent as The Ball. It features funny, unposed photos and employee commentary that ranges from pointed interviews to stream-of-consciousness rantings about everything from drug-sniffing dogs to romance gossip. "The number of couples this tour has birthed and midwived? I count 24," wrote one employee.

So much does Gagnon value employee feedback that in 1995, when HR rehauled the worldwide employee bonus system from one based on seniority to one based on performance, he used focus groups to help mold the new plan. Such focus groups for new policies are quite common at Cirque. Before any major change goes into effect, Gagnon or another HR manager will visit a few different Cirque venues, sit down with 10 to 12 employees and discuss it. "We look for three things," says Gagnon. "Make sure the policy is clear and they understand it; see if they agree with it, or if they disagree and why; and see if we have any chance to get people to use it. At Cirque people are allowed to say 'no' to a policy."

Again, Gagnon doesn't mind the fighters. "We get better from this type of concerned employee than the ones who say, 'Everything's fine, thank you very much,' because then we're just getting what we want to hear. We want to hear what's wrong so we can fix it."

A video club helps round out the communications. A few years ago, employees complained that they were tired of having only a voice to connect with their peers from all over the world. So Quessy asked all the divisions of the company in all the different regions to make a 10-minute videotape of their workplaces. Quessy then edited the segments onto one tape, so employees know what the box office staff in Frankfurt looks like, or the accounting department in Las Vegas or HR in Amsterdam.

Cirque's next daring feat: Growing big while staying cozy. The biggest project on HR's plate for the upcoming year is continued decentralization. This year, for instance, the company hired an HR person to head up Las Vegas operations. The company currently has Gagnon heading HR overall from Montreal as well as HR folks in Las Vegas, Amsterdam and on both the company's tours in Europe and the United States. "We felt that doing the job from Montreal was not the right way to do it," says Gagnon.

HR at headquarters will continue to provide guidelines for HR policies, work permits and insurance while allowing local HR execs to adapt them to their needs. Recently instituted annual HR Summits, in which HR professionals from across the world gather to benchmark, plan and exchange ideas, will help keep the lines open.

Indeed, Gagnon swears by the need to keep the company neighborly no matter how big it gets. Not too long ago, for instance, Gagnon discovered that a Montreal employee handling insurance claims had never seen a touring show. "I said to her boss, 'This is crazy. The only thing she knows about these people is what accident they had.'" So Gagnon quickly bundled her off to see shows in Santa Monica, California, Chicago and New York City, where she got to meet her Cirque du Soleil co-workers. "The system improved so much after that," says Gagnon. "Now she gets the [paperwork] and she says, 'Oh this is Bill!' She'll treat him now as a friend instead of a piece of paper. Now she'll call and say, 'Bill, how is your injury?'"

Some HR executives might not care whether an employee from Canada calls an employee in California, but Gagnon believes it's this interweaving of concerns that makes Cirque du Soleil a success. And the specter of losing this coziness as the circus grows has many at the company worried. Instead of Gagnon knowing everyone on tour now, he says, he must focus more on knowing the managers on all the tours, and letting them work with the employees. It simply is logistically impossible for Gagnon to know everyone anymore. That's a tough realization: Gagnon came aboard in 1989 when the company was making $14 million, had only one tour and 35 employees in Montreal; in 1996, it made $150 million, had several tours and a European office and had 200 employees in Montreal and another thousand outside. "It's hard," he says. "When we started this company, we had our hands in it. We'd be talking with the janitor on a tour 3,000 kilometers away. Now I don't even know the janitor on tour."

That doesn't mean Gagnon is ready for the company to break down into isolated venues, however. In the same year an employee is hired, he or she gets a paid trip to go see a show.

And to stay in the loop, Gagnon and other HR people regularly clock up the frequent-flyer miles traveling from venue to venue just to get people to talk to them one-on-one. Gagnon estimates he flies to Las Vegas alone about seven times a year. He'll plop himself down in an employee cafeteria and just chat so he can get an idea of what's going on in the everyday life of the company.

For the most part, however, Gagnon and Quessy are trying to loosen their holds on the communications reins. In fact, one of their four internal communication objectives for 1997 and 1998 is to support, advise and train the organization's managers in internal communication goals. This has sent Quessy to worldwide locations for face-to-face training sessions.

The Las Vegas venue will be a particular test of the new decentralized HR, as the company gears up to add about 150 new heads for the show to be launched there in 1998. Bill Riske, general manager for Cirque du Soleil, United States, says Las Vegas has been handling more and more of its own HR affairs since the end of 1995, when HR at headquarters and executives in Las Vegas mapped out a two-year hiring plan for the 1998 project, including the starting dates of all important jobs and the hiring schedule to ensure those starting dates were met. As the last of the higher-level jobs are being filled, HR in Las Vegas is using both recruiting departments at Treasure Island, the site of its first permanent show, and the computer database at headquarters.

So, with all the chaos surrounding Cirque du Soleil right now, what does Gagnon most hope for the future of his multicultural, multitalented employees? A goal befitting a true circus man: "I hope that they always like working at Cirque, that they have fun. Fun is an important part of the job here, because if we don't have any fun, how can we provide a fun show?"

Gagnon needn't worry. Ensuring satisfied, well-cared-for employees seems to be a job Cirque du Soleil's HR can do with the greatest of ease.

Workforce, August 1997, Vol. 76, No. 8, pp. 38-45.

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