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Lessons in leadership from a 92-year-old product designer

Barbara Beskind discusses the importance of observing, listening, trusting, and learning from mistakes

				Barbara Beskind | Courtesy IDEO


Barbara Beskind | Courtesy IDEO


Three years ago, Barbara Beskind, then 89, saw IDEO founder David Kelley speaking on 60 Minutes about the importance of cultivating a diversity of experience among team members to develop new products and services. Beskind wrote to the company, offering to help IDEO design for aging and low-vision populations. Kelley invited her to join IDEO as a consultant, and ever since, she has worked for IDEO in their Bay Area offices as a conceptual designer. At IDEO, Beskind has been directly involved with client projects concerning health care and vision issues, and retirement home services. On her own, Beskind has worked on ideas for a pair of glasses for those with macular degeneration; an alternative walker called the “Trekker” with vertical grips to promote good posture and maintain alternating arm-leg movements; and modified ski poles that preserve good balance and gait patterns for those with vision and mobility problems.

Prior to her career at IDEO, Beskind served in the U.S. Army for 20 years as an occupational therapist. She retired as a major in 1966 and went on to found the Princeton Center for Learning Disorders, the first independent private practice in occupational therapy in the United States. In 1989, she retired after a 44-year career in the field.

She visited Stanford recently to share lessons on leadership during a Learn to Lead, Lead to Learn lecture as part of ENGR 311A: Women’s Perspectives Seminar, sponsored by the Stanford Mechanical Engineering Women’s Group. Here are excerpts from her talk:

To learn how to lead, be an inveterate observer

When Beskind joined the Army, she didn’t go through any formal leadership training. Instead, she learned on the job by meticulously observing the leadership styles of the people around her. She analyzed her supervisors, identified the positive qualities she wanted to emulate, and worked on developing those qualities and behaviors in herself. Among them:

  • Praise promptly. It does little good if you see someone doing something well to wait until their annual review; they won’t remember, and it’s likely you won’t either.
  • Praise publicly. People are watching, and when you praise publicly, you’re not speaking just to that person — you have an audience of people who also hear you.
  • Advise privately. Try to never criticize, and definitely don’t do it in public. If you do, you’re a dead leader; your staff won’t trust you, and they will wonder when it’s going to be their turn to get laid out in public.

Similarly, she identified negative qualities she observed in leaders around her, and did her best not to commit the same leadership errors. Sometimes, Beskind points out, you learn the most from the most difficult situations. Looking back at her career, Beskind recalls working at Walter Reed Medical Center, under a manager who discounted the input of Beskind and the rest of the staff. The manager made decisions unilaterally and did a poor job communicating these decisions to her staff. In fact, the manager had the clinic in such dysfunctional uproar, the leadership had never seen so many change of duty requests. Things got so bad for Beskind that she put in a request to be transferred as well.

This manager helped Beskind to understand the importance of earning trust and being a good listener:

  • Recognize that trust is not an inherited quality. Employers don’t give it to you with your paycheck. You have to earn it and you do that by “entrusting trust” — by giving it to others — trust your staff, trust that they know what they’re doing, that if you give them enough leash, they’ll find the right answers.
  • Don’t forget to listen. Sometimes that’s hard if you’re the leader; you think you have to talk all of the time.

Managers maximize the bottom line, leaders maximize the potential of their staff

After years of experience, Beskind has come to understand the differences between managers and leaders. Managers, she says, are people who direct worker action to maximize the bottom line. By contrast, Beskind defines a leader as someone who builds the cohesion needed to succeed in a mission. Leaders are teachers and good team members. The most successful leaders, Beskind says, work to build confidence and maximize the potential of everyone on their staff. “If you can help those who are under you maximize their greatest potential, you’re a successful leader.”

Mistakes often foster the deepest learning

Like any craft, Beskind emphasizes that leadership doesn’t come automatically or instantly. It takes a lifetime to develop. Beskind has honed her craft over 92 years — she confesses to making plenty of mistakes but notes that her mistakes are what fostered some of her deepest learning. Beskind fondly recounts a story of a meeting with the director on her first day of work at the Army Occupational School at Fort Sam Houston, Texas. The major told her, “There is one thing you need to know. I made all of my mistakes, now you need to go out and make your own.” Being given this latitude to fail was liberating for Beskind. It gave her the room she needed to find her unique leadership voice, and in addition to that, it made working with the major enjoyable. “Every one of us loved working for her.”