(Originally published on LinkedIn November 6, 2015)
Mary Poppins, the fictional character popularized by the 1964 musical fantasy film produced by Walt Disney, is widely known and recognized by the young and the young at heart. That film is special to me. I recall that, as a small child, it was the very first movie I saw in a theatre together with my parents and my older siblings. The story, the music, the catchy lyrics, the cheesy sets and the lovely and talented Julie Andrews as Mary Poppins, are all deeply etched in my childhood memories.
Roll forward the clock to 2015 and Mary Poppins has re-entered my life, this time as a professional role model. After many years of working as employee in a variety of full-time permanent roles, I am now freelancing as a consultant and interim executive. Explaining the concept of “interim management” and “what I do” to my family, friends and potential clients can be a challenge. It struck me one day that the enigma of interim management could be easily deciphered by looking at the Mary Poppins movie character who, in my mind, is the quintessential interim manager.
Wikipedia describes Mary Poppins as “a magical nanny who visits a dysfunctional family in London and employs her unique brand of lifestyle to improve the family’s dynamic”. How’s that for a personal brand statement!
Let’s break that down into five essential elements:
- Magical – Mary arrives with a carpet bag filled with what seems like an endless supply of large household objects. As she pulls out a hat stand, wall mirror, house plant and floor lamp from her small bag, she amazes and delights her young charges, Jane and Michael Banks. Parents Mr. and Mrs. Banks and the household staff are similarly mystified and somewhat taken aback by the new nanny and her different ways. In today’s business world, professional interim managers possess tremendous breadth and depth of experience. They come with a fresh approach and a vast array of techniques and tools which they draw upon to diagnose and solve complex problems within their clients’ organizations.
- Visitor – From the outset, Mary knows she will stay with the Banks family only for as long as she is needed. Her intent is not to stay and embed herself permanently in the family dynamic, rather she is there to help and guide them through a period of transition. Interim managers, whether they be at the C-level, executive or manager level, provide a ready solution to address a sudden and unexpected vacancy in a key position. They can also be used to temporarily backfill roles or to supplement the talent and skills of existing senior staff when the organization takes on large initiatives.
- Dysfunctional family – In the opening scenes of the movie, we learn of a recent incident where the Banks children had become lost as they chased their runaway kite through the streets of London. Meanwhile, their father is busy toiling away in a thankless job at a bank and their mother is equally busy as a suffragette fighting for women’s right to vote. A succession of nannies have been hired and quit, the domestic staff are flustered and basically the whole household is in disarray. Messy situations are the battleground for interim managers. We embrace them as opportunities. We experience tremendous satisfaction as we embed ourselves in a client’s organization filling a temporary void and helping them solve their most pressing challenges.
- Unique Brand of Lifestyle – These are the soft skills, also known as emotional intelligence. Mary Poppins knows when to be firm and when to lighten the mood with humour. She engages the children in cleaning up their room by injecting a sense of fun into an otherwise dreary task: “In every job that must be done, there is an element of fun, you find the fun and snap the job’s a breeze”. In addition to providing solid technical support in their fields of expertise (e.g. Finance, HR, IT, Operations), an interim manager can bring a positive energy into a tired and troubled organization and the individuals who work there. “You helped us and me personally get out of our rut” was how one client described it to me.
- Improve the Family’s Dynamics – Mary Poppins never loses sight of the ultimate goal. While the Banks family grow to love and respect Mary and she clearly enjoys their company, she is careful to not let them become too dependent upon her. In the final scene of the movie she stands in the background and watches as the renewed and cohesive Banks family happily goes off to fly a kite together. And rather than lingering and risk getting in the way of the new family dynamic, Mary Poppins recognizes that a new wind is blowing. She opens her umbrella and lets it carry her into the sky onto to her next challenge. With a backward glance and satisfied smile, she reflects on a job well done.
Mary Poppins, the Quintessential Interim Manager, helped the Banks family reach a better place and send their kite soaring up to the atmosphere. Just imagine what an Interim Manager could do for your organization!