Robert Redford isn't toast

Actor, director and businessman Robert Redford began his Thursday talk at the Arts and Business Council of Greater Philadelphia's seminar on workplace creativity recalling an incident from third grade. It was pivotal in his life, and to my way of thinking, illustrative of how one person, either a teacher or a supervisor at work, can make a transformational difference. In this case, one teacher valued Redford's skills and creativity enough to set him on a path that has led him to encourage others, especially independent film makers through the Sundance Institute and Sundance Film Festival. You can read more about his talk in Friday's Philadelphia Inquirer.  

Redford told Robert Lynch, chief executive of Americans for the Arts, who was interviewing him at Thursday's event, that he grew up in Los Angeles in a lower working class family at the end of World War 2. "I couldn't get focused in class and I was bored, so I would mostly draw. I would draw and draw stories."

What he didn't know, he said, was that many of the good teachers were fighting in the war, so classroom talent was somewhat sparse. Then he described how the third grade teacher singled him out. To paraphrase and this sounds soooo familiar. Maybe Bob can show us what he's doing that is so much more interesting than learning.

"I was in the process of being turned into toast," he said. She invited him to come up to the front and show the class his drawing, which was cowboys chasing Indians off a cliff, both of them shooting at each other. Meanwhile B-52 bombers were strafing the cowboys. "What happened was that the class was sort of interested" in the drawing, Redford said.

 The teacher, wiser than he expected, struck a deal. She told him that he could come up in front of the class for 15 minutes every Wednesday and draw a story as long as he paid attention the rest of time.

Told one way, it could be seen as early evidence of Redford's legendary creativity, but Lynch said he also saw it as evidence of creativity by the teacher. 

Redford agreed: "You really only need one or two moments of help in your life -- teachers who recognize you against the tide."

How does this link in? Before Redford and Lynch took the stage, Julie Gebauer, managing director of Towers Watson and the human resource consulting company's expert on creativity in business, made the point that one of the best ways to promote innovation at work is to follow the example of that teacher. Employees have thousands of ideas a day, but it's just a number unless "those ideas are turned into reality. It's not just the good idea." Key to converting ideas to reality is the behavior of the employee's immediate supervisor, whether that supervisor is the CEO or the night shift manager.

She urged companies to invest in training these supervisors, who are often promoted because they are good producers at a line level. But they may not know how to coach and massage ideas into fruition.

The teacher in that classroom showed creativity. She effectively managed the "Redford" problem, but she also, no doubt, sent a message to other students -- that there was room for creativity, even in an elementary school classroom in a lower working class neighborhood in Los Angeles.  

The talk, titled "Cultivating A Creative Workforce"  was held at the Philadelphia Theatre Company's Suzanne Roberts Theatre and was co-sponsored by the Towers Watson.