Small Business

"Praise means nothing when it's said every day

Prima ballerina Karen Kain on managing egos, pursuing greatness and making art profitable

Written by Courtney Shea

Kain is marking her 11th year as the artistic director of the National Ballet of Canada; the 2016€“2017 season starts November 12 with Cinderella.

CB: Ballet is about the pursuit of excellence. As a leader, do you have a strategy for motivating everyone to achieve their very best?
KK: Every season we have a new repertoire, new dancers. It’s never the same old, same old. I think that’s important in terms of staying motivated. As for my style, I’m a bit old school. I’m very generous with praise when I mean it, but I don’t give it as a matter of course. I hear a lot of “that was great, that was great,” especially from millennials. But it means nothing when it’s said every day. I remember how I felt when praise was given out so much, to everyone, so I don’t believe in that.

How does your experience as a dancer help you lead others today?
Often a dancer will know something is off or wrong, but they won’t know how to express what it is. Because I’ve been there, I am able to help them articulate the problem so we can work on solutions. Being able to say, “What you’re feeling, I’ve felt myself,” I think really means something.

Your role requires you to think like both an artist and a businesswoman. Do those two roles ever come into conflict?
Sometimes they do. First and foremost in my heart is the art form, and serving the audience and the artists. Sometimes the business side doesn’t let me achieve everything I want all at once. I’ve never been told I can’t do something, but sometimes I can’t do it yet, and I accept that. I’m very proud of the business success we have had. When I started this job, we were a million dollars in debt; for the past seven years, we’ve had a tiny surplus. I feel very proud that I’ve created a company where really great dancers want to be, because really great dancers can go anywhere.

Speaking of really great dancers: Any strategies for managing egos? Not everyone can play Cinderella.
I have honest discussions with my dancers: They talk to me about what they would like to do, and I tell them what I can do for them. I try to make them understand the whole picture, as opposed to the goals they each have as just one person. Everyone is incredibly ambitious—that’s the nature of what we do. But not everyone can get the roles they want—that’s also the reality­—so I try to be extremely honest and hope they can handle it.

One of the many things you have done very well as artistic director is fundraising. What’s your secret?
Quite honestly, people often come forward of their own volition because of the quality of what they’ve seen onstage. That is how you raise money: by creating excitement around what your organization is doing. I’m a very frank, upfront person; I don’t consider myself a very savvy fundraiser at all. I work with an amazing development team.

I can’t help but notice that you are big on deflecting praise, which female leaders tend to do more than men.
I guess it depends on the woman or the man. Maybe some men really do believe they do it all on their own. I listen to a lot of advice. I still feel like a student, more than 10 years in. And I feel like, OK, things are going well today, but tomorrow—who knows?

I guess as a prima ballerina, you’re comfortable being on your toes. Pun intended.
I guess so!

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