Learning Management Skills from Mary Poppins

Everything I needed to know about management I learned from Mary Poppins. It was the mid-'80s. My two oldest daughters were little girls and Disney Channel was the new player on cable television. Consequently, there was lots of Winnie the Pooh, Robin Hood, Summer Magic...and Mary Poppins being played in our house. My wife and I watched these and other Disney movies with our girls over and over.

You can learn a lot from Walt Disney. Turns out, you can learn a lot about management from P.L Travers (author) and Disney's takes on her seminal character Mary Poppins, who by her own assessment was "practically perfect in every way."

Here, then, are the key management principles I learned from Mary Poppins.

"Well begun is half done."

This was Mary's assertion to her two charges when helping them deal with making order out of the chaos of their messy playroom.

Preparation is the key here. Plan your work; then, work your plan. Another adage I have found to be true is this: "If you fail to plan, you plan to fail.


"If you fail to plan, you plan to fail."


Getting off to a fast start is vital to success. If you fall behind out of the gate, you spend the rest of the race (or work week) playing catch up, which requires more energy and produces less certain results.

  1. Formulate your plan, big picture and for each team member.
  2. Present the plan so that every team member understands his/her role.
  3. Execute the plan.
  4. Evaluate the progress.

"A spoon full of sugar helps the medicine go down"

Inevitably, a manager will have to take actions or deliver a message that is unpopular and unwelcome. Whether it is a reprimand or honest evaluation of a team member's under-performance, unless you are a sadist (or a jerk), this is not going to be your favorite part of management. A little well-placed sugar can sure help your team swallow the bitter pill.

  1. Vocalize their value. Let him know the value he brings to the team...and don't be vague. Be specific. Let the person know you have observed and are cognizant of the value they bring to the team. When the children complained of their father to Mary Poppins, she made certain they knew just what he did for them, the sacrifices he made, the value he brought to their lives.
  2. Acknowledge their achievements. So, they dropped the ball on this one, but remember how they came through last week? Remind them of that. You noticed. You appreciated it. It mattered.
  3. Eliminate their excuses. Excuses accomplish nothing. They  only serve to shift responsibility, cloud the real issue, and keep us on the path of failure.
  4. Recognize the reason. An excuse for failure is a cop-out. That doesn't mean there is no legitimate reason. If you don't know why someone failed, then you won't know how to help them succeed.

Having spooned in the sugar, don't forget to give the medicine. The sandwich theory works well. Start positive. Give the bad news. End positive.

Encourage Imagination

Mary Poppins opened the imagination of the children and the adults around her. She helped them see the world, not as it was, but as it could be, as she saw it - a place of magic and wonder.

Every corporation has processes. That's important. It keeps people "on the same page" and moving in the same direction.

People, however, are not machines. They have ideas, desires, hopes, dreams. Allow for imagination and you may find a better way, a new process that is more efficient and effective.

Working hard is great. Working smart is greater. I have heard - and repeated - that laziness is the mother of all invention. I don't mean lazy people invent stuff. They don't. I mean hard working people with imagination, determination, and the desire to accomplish as much or more in less time invent things like the wheel...and the Internet.

Make it their idea

When Mary Poppins sent the children off to work with their father George Banks, she actually made him believe it was HIS idea.

The true genius of leadership (which is greater even than management) is getting those you lead to own your leadership as if it was their idea to begin with.

President Harry Truman said, "There is no limit to what you can do if you don't care who gets the credit."


"There is no limit to what you can do if you don't care who gets the credit."


You have to decide whether you want to feed your own ego and toot your own horn or actually build a productive team.

Don't forget the magic

As straight-laced and proper as Mary Poppins was, she believed in the magic of laughter and imagination. She wasn't afraid of a tea party on the ceiling. She let the children see the fun and funny side of the nanny...BUT...and this is important...she NEVER lost her dignity. Whether having tea on the ceiling or riding merry-go-round ponies on a fox hunt, Mary knew how to have fun without relinquishing her role as the leader, as a person to be respected and followed.

If you can manage like Mary, you can make believers...and magic.