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What I Learned from Seeing Kinky Boots!

Diversify your thinking

I confess that I had my eyes opened wide recently when I saw a group of transgender men thrust themselves towards us provocatively wearing Knee High Kinky Boots. What was more embarrassing, I was sitting beside my 14 year old daughter watching this spectacle and had to provide a very fast forward running commentary to update her on the facts of life that I had omitted in previous chats. We were on a weekend daddy and daughter trip to London and a lovely lady at the ticket booths earlier that day had recommended this Olivier award winning West End Show “Kinky Boots” as a must see. We booked immediately and we weren’t disappointed as the show was a knockout.

It told the story of a traditional English shoe manufacturing business in freefall and a son who needed to turn it around after his father’s death. He was fresh out of college when he had to return from London and save the business. He had little experience of change management and was very unsure of his own career path. The musical has some core messages running through that we can apply to change and career planning.

Parents Career advice

The career advice the son received from his father was to take over the business. The son wanted to head to London and enjoy a different life but his father was interested in legacy and passing the business onto the younger generation. But less than one third of family businesses survive the transition from first to second generation ownership. There is enormous pressure on many children to do what their parents believe is the best career choice for them.

My career advice? Never take a job out of duty or responsibility to your parents or another person for that matter. This leads to unhappiness and a growing resentment as you get older. Your parents, while well-meaning, only see the world from their perspective, they’re from a different generation and their career advice is not always right for you, especially in this much changed world of work.

Following someone else’s dream

In the show, the son’s girlfriend was very pushy, she wanted the expensive boots and the dream lifestyle associated with being attached to the business owner’s son. She had created her dream of living in London but had not taken the time to truly understand what motivated him. He was unwilling to let her down and was following her direction because he did not know what he wanted himself. He did not trust his own opinion. He depended on his father for his identity until he ran away. He was torn between a father that saw him as the heir and a girlfriend who saw him as the answer to her upmarket dream lifestyle.

“To thine own self be true are wise words” from George Bernard Shaw. Don’t get caught up in someone else’s dream. Seek help to become brave enough to call it out early before you feel you don’t have the power to turn back. It doesn’t matter how far you have gone down one road, remember you can always turn back.

Don’t worry what anyone thinks

I attended the Talent Summit recently where Dan Pink spoke about the benefits of enabling Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose in the workplace. He was asked after his talk what advice he would have given to his 18 year old self. He gave two answers. (1) Marry well – by that he meant marrying not for money (yet he did say it helped!) but someone with whom you can be yourself and (2) “Don’t worry what others think”.

In the west end show, the son was diversifying into producing kinky boots for drag queens. It was a niche but profitable global market replacing his traditional British men’s shoes market which was literally dying on its feet. Initially, he was worried what his employees and the locals in his home town of Northampton would think. He overcame initial resistance, believed in himself and is building a global business now. We all need to diversify our skills for the future to stay ahead of the change curve. We should not worry about those who want the world to stand still, they will be found out in time.

Diversity – We also saw a transgender man in the show not accepted by his work colleagues and his fellow workers refused to use the same toilets as him. I witnessed this early in my career when I worked with a gay colleague and some of my workmates refused to use the men’s toilets at work because he used them! We work in a more multicultural workplace now and we need to resist the mentality that says “we always did it this way” as this type of thinking silences new ideas and inhibits progress.

MIT’s media lab has a long tradition of encouraging unorthodox ways of doing things. Its Chairman Nicholas Negroponte notes: “New ideas emerge from a heterogeneous collection of edgy, unorthodox people, from architecture to arts, from maths to music”. Today, new ideas are not coming from the top of organisations, they are coming from the edge, from those who may not conform to our traditional ways but who have a lot to offer if we only listen and engage them.

In summary, the message from Kinky Boots is to back yourself, worry less about what anyone thinks and embrace diversity as an opportunity to change your thinking which could indeed change your life direction. This quote from Einstein rings true when we take the learnings from Kinky Boots.

We can not solve our problems with the same level of thinking that created them
– Einstein

John Fitzgerald is the founder and managing director of Harmonics. To hear John speak about trusting your own instinct and being the best you can be or learn more about our programmes, please contact Harmonics on 01 8942616, 061 336136 or 021 7319604 or email info@harmonics.ie

Harmonics specialises in helping organisations plan for change, manage change and support their people through change.

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