The negotiation lasted 20 years, involved a brilliant business visionary against a very difficult personality, and resulted in two excellent movies, including one of the most iconic movies ever. The negotiation was between Walt Disney and P.L. Travers, the author of Mary Poppins. The other movie? Saving Mr. Banks, which I recently saw.
In fact, I was struck while watching Saving Mr. Banks of the critical negotiation lessons it highlighted. Here are five, with the caveat that these come from the movie version of what occurred, and I can’t attest to their historical accuracy.
1. Keep a laser-like focus on your goal
Walt Disney pursued Travers for 20 years before she sold him the movie rights to her book. And even then, she only gave them reluctantly, extracted a veto power over the finished product (a seemingly unusual and unique provision), and after giving Disney’s team an extremely hard time.
Bottom line – Disney gave up a lot and it took a very long time, but he ultimately achieved his goal and made a movie many of us will never forget.
2. Be patient and persevere
It almost goes without saying, you sometimes need to be super patient and persevere even when it’s tough and success seems unlikely. Years ago one of my professors called this “stick-to-it-iveness.”
My wife sometimes accuses me of going overboard on this, telling me I don’t know when to let go. She’s right. There does need to be some balance here and you need to know when to move on. But in many negotiations, patiently keeping at it even when at a seeming impasse can lead to breakthroughs and great success.
3. Keep your word
Disney said he kept pursuing the rights to Mary Poppins because “I promised my daughter” and “I always keep my promise.” It’s another obvious but critical lesson.
Be trustworthy. Marquette Law Professor Andrea Schneider a few years ago asked a bunch of lawyers to describe the traits they found in the most effective negotiators. She found they include being assertive, empathetic, enjoyable, ethical, personable, rational and trustworthy.
4. Calculate your risk/reward ratio
As a lawyer, I rarely recommend that parties enter into big deals without a signed agreement. It’s very risky. Plus, written agreements help ensure parties actually agree on the major elements and reduce the possibility of misunderstandings, ambiguous oral commitments, future disputes and litigation, etc.
However, this is not always the case. Here, Disney moved into the screenwriting phase of the movie without a signed deal – and even knew he might never get it. He did, however, believe the possible reward was worth the risk.
5. Do your strategic due diligence and explore interests
Near the end of the movie Travers dramatically accused Disney of going back on his word, left L.A. for her home in London, and said it was over. Goodbye Mary Poppins the movie.
But then Disney inadvertently learned that her given name was not the name under which she wrote. And after quickly researching her real background, he figured out why she wrote Mary Poppins and what made her tick.
Upon learning this, and after catching the next flight to London, he was finally able to build some rapport with her and show her how making the movie could satisfy her fundamental interests.
We then got a great movie.
Published February 2, 2014 The Arizona Republic