Leadership Lessons at Kinney Shoes

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The other day, I was driving on Story Road in east San Jose reflecting on what influenced me to seek out leadership roles at work and in the community.  For starters, I’ve always been fascinated with great leaders.  When I was a kid, I would ride my bike to the county library and check out books about U.S. presidents and WWII generals.  After college, I began gobbling up biographies on Washington, Lincoln, Churchill, LBJ, and others.

Throughout my career, I’ve had the opportunity to participate in leadership programs that opened my eyes to a complex world.  I’ve sat transfixed in corporate seminars listening to words of wisdom from modern-day leaders like President Bill Clinton, General Colin Powell, and Oprah Winfrey.  From Washington to Winfrey, they all had the same qualities: they knew how to build great teams, create trust and loyalty with those around them, and inspire others to greatness.

As I drove by the old Kinney Shoes store on Story Road, it suddenly it hit me that it was there, where I had a part-time job during my high school days, that I learned my first lessons in leadership.  Kinney’s was an institution in east San Jose throughout the 1970s and 80s.  Everybody bought shoes there.  During the last days of summer just before school started, the store was like Grand Central Station at rush hour.  Suede wallabies, Mary Janes, and NBA “tennies” (Chuck Taylor knock-offs) flew off the shelves.

The part-time sales team was a diverse group of east side kids from Latino, Black, White, and Filipino families.  The leader of the crew was the store manager, an African American son of a soldier in his early 30s named Bob Williams.  Looking back on that experience, I realized that Bob was a true leader in the classic sense.  He carefully assembled an effective team, created a work environment that felt more like family than a part-time job, and transformed a bunch of east side teenagers into a shoe-selling machine.

Bob knew what he wanted when he hired people for part-time sales positions.  He put together a team of teenagers who came from hard-working families, participated in high school sports, and demonstrated leadership skills.  Billy Ham, my classmate and baseball teammate at James Lick High School, introduced me to Bob.  At the brief job interview I’ll never forget, Bob asked about my family, what sports I played, and if I was in the starting lineup.  Seemingly satisfied with my answers, he hired me on the spot.

While it was clear that we were there to sell shoes, Bob showed a genuine interest in our family and school life.  From time to time, Bob would invite us to his house for a barbecue where we got to know his wife Tina and son Bobby, played basketball in the driveway and two-hand touch football on the street.  These types of activities solidified us as a team.  It wouldn’t be unusual to see one of us spend a few hours just hanging out at the store on our day off.  Many of my co-workers became life-long friends.

We were a lively bunch that appeared, at first glance, to be undisciplined.  Bob had the rare ability to read people to determine what inspires them to achieve, a quality that distinguishes a leader from a mere manager.  Knowing that athletes loved to compete, he made a competition out of everything.  I still laugh thinking about us, in shirts and ties, playing Wiffle ball, running races, and duck walking in the parking lot.  All it would take was a challenge from Bob to see us run across the street to get a phone number from a girl sitting at the bus stop.  So when Bob declared a sales contest on back-to-school weekend, the race was on to see who could sell the most shoes, socks, purses, nylons, purses, and shoe cleaners.

Today when I think of Kinney’s, I always remember the friends, the contests, and good times.  I laugh reliving the mischief caused by a group of rambunctious teenagers from working-class families with a few dollars in their pockets from selling shoes.  Now I’ve also come to see Kinney’s as the starting point of my amazing journey through the world of leadership.  Those of us who had the privilege of working there during the late 70s and early 80s unwittingly got an education in leadership from a true master.  Right here in east San Jose.  Thanks Bob!

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9 thoughts on “Leadership Lessons at Kinney Shoes

  1. Linda Yap

    Loved your reflection on how you remember someone who influenced your leaderships skills and values today. Mine was a teacher who believed that I could be successful in college.

  2. Kevin Jensen

    Thanks Eddie,

    That you reflect on matters to find meaning and growth may be the biggest leadership lesson you shared. Thank you for giving us a glimpse of your values of teamwork, self-improvement, and lifelong learning. May they inspire others to look inwardly and take action on what we learn in order to grow in knowledge, integrity, compassion and caring – that we may be part of the solutions and not a continuation of the problems.
    KJ

  3. Thanks Eddie, I was a student at San Jose State > SJSU in the early 70’s and remember Story Road and the Kinney’s Shoes of which you speak. Rather than return to Compton during the summers I stayed in SJ to commute to East Palo Alto and the Ravenswood Recreation Center where I was a lifeguard before moving to pool manager. The person most responsible for my transformation from an insecure, childish worker to a responsible manager was the park director Kendall Simmons. When the community wanted a new (read African-American) pool manager I was perplexed as to where they would find one. It was Simmons who looked at me, laughed and said not to worry because I was the new Pool Manager! I spent my spring in more training than I would have ever chosen for myself. I was the only female pool manager in the bay area at the time. I have since gone on to a satisfying career in communications, writing, and education – but I owe so much to the one person who believed in me – even when I did not. So, as you speak of Kinney Shoes, I too must speak of Kendall Simmons. Thank you for allowing me to do so.

  4. Anna Marcoida-Harshbarger

    I really liked this story because it reminded me so much of those women role models that I had growing up. My first job in college under work study was at the March of Dimes. So. I know how nonprofits work from filling to funding! I had a supervisor, Ms. Jayne who even took me and mentored me in meeting with potential celebrities and funders. She took me once to her meeting with Betty White! I couldn’t imagine. A real movie star!
    I also learned to develop leadership skills from people (outside of my parents and family) who I most wanted to be like: caring, trustworthy and loyal. At the end of the day, our core values are developed very early in life. Thank you for sharing. Brought back great lessons!

  5. David J Neighbors

    Eddie –

    A great post.

    For so many years, those of us from the East Side have been treated as third class, but you have been instrumental in changing all that. Numerous times, the statements you made from the dais as President of Governing Board of the East Side Union High School District, implored those in the audience to look within ourselves with pride and to use our strengths to not only help ourselves, but to create a path for success for others.

    As a business owner who makes hiring decisions, I tend to lean toward those who are self-made and not those who have had everything handed to them. What I’ve found in the work place is that the self-made individuals have a stronger work ethic, do not enter their position with a feeling that the company owes them something, and know they need to make it on their own.

    My family always worked – from the fields to the canneries and drying sheds, and eventually to my office downtown. Not a day goes by that I do not think about the sacrifices that have been made and I try my best to make a difference for others.

  6. Reflections are powerful….thank you for sharing your story with us…..pretty powerful the gift of leadership and the responsibility we have to pay it forward…..Thank you, Eddie….

  7. Tami

    Awesome story, Eddie! I can just picture you and Billy working there 🙂
    My parents bought many pairs of shoes for me and my 4 sisters at that store.
    It’s nice to know it was run by a true leader who left an impression on our leaders of today.

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