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Three Development Ideas From ‘Saving Mr. Banks’

marypoppinsI am a bona fide “Disney Freak” – have been since I was little. At 10 years old I sent a series of letters to different executives at Disney trying to find out “how do you get a job at Disney?” I must have sent out 50 letters, all typed on an old manual typewriter, slowly and painfully. Out of all of them I sent, I received one personal letter back. The head of Disney talent based in NYC in 1972, it simply said “My only word of advice is time. We hire the best and they stay for a lifetime. It will take time kid, give it time.”

From that point on I have been reading, watching and exploring how Disney as a company does business, and how Walt Disney was as a leader. So when Saving Mr. Banks came out, I was ready to head to the movie theater for the first showing. The movie was great; it was a wonderful story to watch unfold. I learned three business development ideas from watching the movie:


The fact that Walt Disney took 20 years to get Mary Poppins in the works. Through consistent effort and a vision of how great the movie could be, Walt Disney kept at it with Ms. P.L. Travers, finally getting her to OK the creation of the movie. He didn’t give up, didn’t decide that he should never do it – instead he just had to wait for the right time. He gave it time and patience.

This is true in many things in business. While 20 years is an amazing level of patience, most times it is just months or at worst a year that we might need to wait to make something happen. In our world today of instant communications, we sometimes in business want instant results. Greater things can take time.

Many times in development efforts, we force a timeline on a project or effort that has no connection to reality. Just because we want something doesn’t mean it will happen. Just because we want something right now doesn’t mean it will happen right now. We need to set our understanding of timing and end results based on what we know and include all the facts. If there are players or forces out side our control then we need to be realistic. Many times in corporate settings, the machine in place to development things becomes unrealistic in thinking to please those higher up on making things happen in the right quarter or in time for the next fiscal release. Setting expectations of the total picture and players is key.

You Never Know Where A Key Relationship Will Form

The driver Ralph, played by Paul Glamatti, is in the background at the start, and while he is an interesting part of the introduction of California, to Ms. Travers it is not obvious that later he makes the experience more real to her. The sharing Ralph does in the movie creates an emotional connection to the business, makes Ms. Travers stop and think about the bigger opportunity to share the story of Mary Poppins and what it means to kids. Ralph’s sharing of his love of his handicapped daughter and how the story made his child happy makes Ms. Travers realize that through Disney, she can share with an even larger base of children and adults that may gain joy from her stories. She listens and opens up.

In addition, in the movie Walt Disney finally opens up to Ms. Travers about his own past and his childhood and he understands that the book and the story is about her father, not Mary Poppins. He opens up and shares a personal view on his own father and childhood. He shifts from Walt Disney the TV and movie mogul to Walt Disney the human, and it is at this point she listens, connects and signs.

How many times have we not made that leap in development, that effort to connect? Even take that risk of being personal and sharing on a level that shows we are human too. Not saying to be mushy or anything – more about putting the plan to the side, turn off the PowerPoint and getting away from the board room and really listening, really sharing, really connecting?

So it is not always the clear plan and path that you think will lead to the deal, it maybe the less clear, side trips that open the doors.

Don’t Force Culture

In the movie we see that Ms. Travers is very formal, that even with her long term publisher and publicist at the start, he calls her Pam and she rebuts him with “and when did we allow you to become so familiar with us, Ms. Travers please…” Then we see her arrival at Disney and she is told that everyone goes by first names, and time and time again everyone tries to force cultural norms on her and she pushes back.

We can all do a better job in thinking and learning about those we want to partner with. How do they see the world, act in the world? How do we? What are the differences? How much can we give and bend to allow things to open up?

I don’t know why, but when thinking about this I remember a meeting many years ago between a big corporation and a local small avant-garde circus in Saint Louis. There we had 15 corporate guys dressed like bankers in a board room on the 9th floor, talking with a woman owner of this local circus and the only baby elephant in the area for rent that we needed for an event. She had her newborn baby with her, in a time when women were rare in the executive suite and here she was with a baby. The true test was when she started to breastfeed the baby in the meeting. Many of the men in the room almost passed out, but she keep on going and talking – never skipped a beat. The meeting went well for both parties – because both didn’t try and change the others. I remember after the meeting when we were talking, just the corporate types on next steps, the corporate business owner said “now that was a first, and you know it was OK, just what I would have expected from a very creative company.” We didn’t overreact and lose the deal.

So when working on a development effort with different people, different companies and different belief systems, it is key to understand how to respect these difference, while not losing sight of your own AND the goal of the effort.

Saving Mr. Banks was a joy to watch and think about. I loved at the end hearing the actual tapes of P.L. Travers and the creative session, seeing Tom Hanks bring Walt Disney to life on the screen.

There were many lessons in the movie and the story – at the core was the idea that one person, Walt Disney, really wanted to make this happen. Many times in life, truly creative and wonderful things are not by committee, not by statistics or data but the creative desire and passion of one person makes it real.

That is a powerful thought for any development effort.

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