What Tom Hanks Can Tell You About How To Run Your Staffing Office

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P.L. Travers: Stop! Mary Poppins is not for sale! I won’t have her turned into one of your silly cartoons.What Tom Hanks Can Tell You About How To Run Your Staffing Office

Walt Disney: Says the woman who sent a flying nanny with a talking umbrella to save the children?

P.L. Travers: You think Mary has come to save the children?

[Walt and the other filmmakers are stunned silent]

P.L. Travers: Oh, dear!

In the movie “Saving Mr. Banks,” Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) is nearing the end of a two-decade long battle to make the movie “Mary Poppins.” The endeavor was born out of a promise made to his daughters, who loved the book growing up.

However, his battle with the book’s author, P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson), is just starting in earnest.

She hated many of the things that had made Walt Disney so successful; animation, crass commercialism, and so on. But with her book sales slowing down, and her financial situation getting worse, she decided to entertain the possibility of a motion picture adaptation, with plenty of provisions in place, to protect the integrity of both her and her characters.

In the end Disney won the battle, not only making the movie, but making it his way, without her approval of the final edit, something she thought she was getting.

Mary Poppins would eventually turn out to be the greatest live action success of Walt Disney’s career, winning five Oscars, and netting him huge profits that he used to purchase 27,500 acres in central Florida, and eventually finance the construction of Disney World.

Also, the Library of Congress has just announced that Mary Poppins is one of 25 legendary films being added this year to the National Film Registry, a pantheon of films that have cultural, historic, and aesthetic significance and “help define a national patrimony.”

Now all of this might never have happened if Walt Disney, the autocratic CEO of a large – and growing – entertainment empire, had actually listened to the author of the original work.

Disney believed in himself, he trusted his judgement, and had confidence he knew how to create and sell what his customers wanted to buy better than anyone.

But Disney believed in himself, he trusted his judgement, and had confidence he knew how to create and sell what his customers wanted to buy better than anyone.

When you run a company, including a staffing company, you have to have that kind of confidence.

I went to a leadership seminar at a business school recently, and a consultant who works exclusively for privately-owned companies said most problems that occur in small businesses trace back to one fatal characteristic: lack of leadership.

Though Tom Hanks, one of America’s most beloved actors, does give Uncle Walt the full-on good guy treatment, the real-life Walt knew running a business isn’t a popularity contest, and he wasn’t there to win friends. He was there to provide the leadership and the creative direction for a pioneering company.

Most problems that occur in small businesses trace back to one fatal characteristic: lack of leadership.

As we have come to learn, Walt Disney was hardly perfect. In 1941, Disney’s animators staged a strike that took four months—and the intervention of the federal government—to resolve. Many of the Disney’s early cartoons were viewed as racially insensitive, and he was seen by many as controlling and darkly driven.

I’m not writing to suggest the real life Walt Disney, and the version played by Tom Hanks in the movie Saving Mr. Banks, was a man whose personal views should be emulated. Only that he was a visionary with a strong plan for the future who can provide some leadership lessons for us today.

Let’s compare and contrast Tom Hanks turn as Walt Disney with his role in the “true” story of Captain Richard Phillips and the 2009 hijacking by Somali pirates of the US-flagged MV Maersk Alabama; the first American cargo ship to be hijacked in 200 years.

While Disney might have underestimated the part his supporting cast and crew played in his success, Hanks’ Captain Phillips knows he and his crew need each other.

When they learn their next shipping route will take them near troubled waters. Phillips reminds us of the importance of effective planning when he asks the crew to walk him through their emergency response plan.

As a business leader, you have to be prepared with your own crisis plans when faced with challenges. Then Phillips encourages his crew with the hopeful line, “Stick together and we’ll be alright.”

Once the vessel is hijacked by the pirates looking for a big payday, Phillips knows he must also not only cooperate with the invaders, but in some ways maybe even collaborate with them.

It’s fascinating to to see how he reacts differently to each of them, including with the head pirate Muse, who appoints himself the new captain soon after their armed boarding.

Muse: Last year I took a Greek ship. 6 million dollars.

Captain Phillips: 6 million dollars? So what are you doing here?

Muse: Shut up, Irish. Too much talking.

Captain Phillips: The problem is not me talking. The problem is you not listening.

Great leaders are great listeners. Want to become a better leader? Stop talking and start listening.

Great leaders are great listeners. Throughout his hostage situation, Phillips continually gave Muse advice, which he ignored of course.

Mike Myatt writes about leadership myths for Forbes. In this post he writes, “Want to become a better leader? Stop talking and start listening. Being a leader should not be viewed as a license to increase the volume of rhetoric. Rather astute leaders know there is far more to be gained by surrendering the floor than by dominating it.”

That is exactly what Hanks’ character does in the film. When confronted by angry, armed men who declare themselves the new captain, he surrenders the floor, and repeats, “okay, you’re the new captain.”

Super entrepreneur Richard Branson says there is a difference between hearing what someone is saying and actually listening to them. Listening, he says, means you are taking their point of view into account and truly considering what they have to say.

Even though Captain Phillips is often starting at a gun, he does make an effort to think about things from the point of view of his hijackers, and acts accordingly. That, along with keeping his cool under extreme pressure, while some rescuers attempt to execute a plan of their own, ultimately keeps him alive.

Running your staffing business successfully may not be the difference between life and death, though it may seem like that some days.

However, the stakes are still high in many ways. And though Hollywood may at first seem like an unlikely source for best practices, you could do worse than watching Tom Hanks ply his trade and provide some entertaining – and teachable – moments.
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