“Everything is possible, even the impossible”. Who said that? Why, Mary Poppins, of course. Mary Poppins - what a character and what an inspiration. I loved the first Mary Poppins, as played by Julie Andrews, and I love the latest incarnation, as played by Emily Blunt. So much so, in fact, that I’ve been three times to see Mary Poppins Returns and the second and third time I took my notebook, wanting to jot down thoughts and quotes.
You’re probably wondering how Mary Poppins relates to the world of work, because this blog is, after all, about work and workplace stuff. The link is that I want to talk about pioneering in the context of Mary Poppins. Being pioneering is one of our values, helping us on our road to prosperity. As pioneers, we want to innovate and take bold steps forward. We will stand up for what’s right and we will question convention and stay curious. It’s not about throwing caution to the wind or needlessly reinventing, but positively challenging industry norms to create new, rewarding opportunities for customers, for ourselves and for our employees.
The Mary Poppins character is all about thinking differently, doing things differently, looking at things from a completely new perspective, imagination, innovation, creativity...
Most businesses don’t innovate. Instead, they copy what exists already and change it slightly. They don’t break the rules or try to think of things in a radically different way because being innovative means taking risks.
That’s not Mary Poppins. Everything is possible to Mary Poppins and she wants us all to imagine the impossible. She likes to challenge the norms, to think outside of the box and seek opportunities. Both Mary Poppins and Mary Poppins Returns are about letting your imagination take over, something us adults find hard to do.
Now we all know that Mary Poppins is a nanny, a wonderful bit of Disney fiction (based on the book by P L Travers) but she could almost be a coach for innovative business leaders. There is so much wisdom behind her snarky remarks and quirky songs that I put her in the master coach category. She has this perfect blend of fun, extreme decorum and absolute professionalism. The Julie Andrews version in particular, is someone who is so direct, can stop people in their tracks but all done in such a charming way that you feel good about your interactions with her.
I thought all of this first time I saw Mary Poppins Returns. When I returned the following two times, I had two questions I wanted answers to: What did I hear? And what do I do with that?
I heard a lot of great lines in those songs, lines that we could learn a lot from in business.
We’ll start with this one, from the song ‘Can You Imagine That?’:
Yes, logic is the rock of our foundation
I suspect and I’m never incorrect
That you’re far too old to be giving in to imagination
In this song, Mary Poppins acknowledges logical thinking, but also urges us to imagine new possibilities. That is, of course, what us adults have to do in this fast moving, constantly changing world if we are to be innovative – imagine new possibilities.
There are three quotes I want to hit you with now, the first two coming from the song ‘A Cover Is Not The Book’. Firstly:
***All that really counts and matters
Is the special stuff inside ***
With Mary Poppins as the business coach, this is her prompting people to look inside the office to uncover new opportunities and uncover the vision of the future.
Chapter titles are like signs
And if you read between the lines
You’ll find your first impression was mistook
For a cover is nice
But a cover is not the book
And the third quote is from the song ‘Can You Imagine That?’ again:
They search the world for buried gold
They won’t grow up but don’t grow old
Can you imagine that?
These lines are just brilliant. What she is saying here, again in a business sense, is the best competitors and previously unknown competitors, are tuning into un-tapped markets. This is all about about innovation.
And soon after those lines, in the same song, comes this:
Some people look out on the sea
And see a brand new day
Their spirits lift them high above the blue
Yet some others spear an anchor
And they sink in seconds flat
This quote is about the fact that whenever we do something, there’s going to be mixed responses from the market and we’re going to be thinking about that and thinking about our share price as an organisation and asking ‘Do the analysts truly understand our strategy yet’? What Mary Poppins is telling us to do is to challenge the status quo. If you always accept what you’ve always got, then all you will ever get is what you’ve always got.
And then there’s the Turning Turtle song, featuring Meryl Streep, another fantastic actress, with the words:
You see, when the world turns upside down
The best thing is turn right along with it
Here she’s encouraging leaders to take a leap of faith. You have to contemplate a world that goes against your assumptions and learn how to deal with that. Shit happens – what are you going to do about it? This is the modern world of work, when things can turn upside down, just like that. The world is turning – turtle, turtle, turtle…
When you change the view from where you stood
The things you view will change for good
Let’s take this a bit further. If you’re a turtle and you’re on your back, then it’s really hard to get the right way up again. But then, if you weren’t on your back, you wouldn’t have changed your view. So sometimes you have to be in awkward situations and while change can be daunting, it will also ultimately be inspiring. Mary is giving reassurance here and saying that when something is uncomfortable and awkward to get out of, it can give you a different view.
That’s what she does throughout the film – constantly remind you that you can address your own mindset and pave your own way to success. And you also need to inspire others and shine a light for them along the way. She says that loud and clear in Trip a Little Light Fantastic
And when the fog comes rolling in, just
Keep your feet upon the path
Mustn’t mope and frown or worst lie down
Don’t let it be your epitaph
So when life is getting scary, be your own illuminary
Who can shine the light for all the world to see
As you trip a little light fantastic with me
Basically, Mary Poppins gives so much advice and so many tips on how to realise your potential, make your dreams come true and make the world a better place. She pushes you to keep moving forward, as we know we all must, with lyrics like this from the song Nowhere to Go But Up:
Let the past take a bow
The forever is now
And there’s nowhere to go but up, up!
There’s nowhere to go but up!
So if we dig down deep into Mary Poppins and her journey with the Banks family, how did she make them believers of their own destiny? It certainly wasn’t in a two or three minute summary. It wasn’t a one-day workshop and it wasn’t in a leadership retreat or a closed-door strategy meeting. None of those. No, as a leader, she demurred the undesirable behaviours as they occurred. She brought sceptics on a guided journey to experience change and emotional ups and downs for themselves. She did all this in a safe way where it was okay to have these experiences. She didn’t offer answers, but did encourage self discovery.
Now, back to us at Quilter. If we look at the value alignment of how people feel our pioneering value reflects the day to day experience of work here, it has not progressed in 18 months –it’s stuck at 6.9. Our other values of stronger together and being dependable have shifted forward, however.
So I’m going to spend a couple of weeks reflecting on what we do and how we do it. Maybe there are some strategies in our talent and culture or development programmes that need attention. Or maybe it’s about aligning the people to where the business is going. I’m curious to see if I can take some of the genius of Mary and do something pioneering with it. Think the impossible.