How to lead through influence for Product Managers - Kara DeFrias

The product manager’s guide to the care and feeding of humans – Kara DeFrias, Director of UX

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Kara Defrias Lead Through Influence

How to lead through influence, not authority

Kara DeFrias has had a diverse career in product that has led her all the way to the White House. Her current role is Director of UX for White House Cancer Moonshot, a Task Force with the mission to double the rate of progress in cancer research and treatment, striving to accelerate what could be achieved in ten years in just five.

In Kara’s October 2016 Leading the Product talk she examined the human aspect of leading a team as a product manager.

“We have metrics and dashboards that show us how our product is progressing. We have red and yellow and green dots to show us how much we should be panicking.” says Kara,  “It’s great to know what’s going on with the product – but what about the wellness of the team?”

Kara’s focus is how to lead through influence, based on her experience of managing teams from 5 – 60 people.

Being the leader, but not the boss

One of the most challenging aspects of being a Product Manager is that often you find yourself leading a team of designers, engineers and developers, none of whom actually directly report to you. Kara DeFrias has an interesting perspective on leading without having the title of leader.

“These humans, the ones who show up every dayor most every dayto work with you, create with you, and ultimately fail or succeed with you…are, to me, the most important part of a product lifecycle”, says Kara. 

What’s challenging is that none of these people actually have to listen to what the Product Manager is saying. Over ten years of developing products and working with teams of up to 60 people, Kara has developed the following strategies for guiding a team that create experiences, not just products.

  1. Empower the team

In Kara’s experience, people need an environment where people feel they’re in a safe space to do some of the best work of their career. As the Product Manager who is leading a team, you get the job of loving everyone and doing everything in your power to set them up for success.

“Give them a goal, rally them around the vision, work with them to set up their plan, provide air cover and then empower them to deliver.”

You don’t have to be a micromanager. Have each team create plans for their part of the project. Review and finalise these plans with them and then leave them to do what they do best. Touch base and provide support, but otherwise cheer them on from the sidelines.

Empower your team… it’s not all about you

On a human level, as a product manager it makes all the difference to know what makes people tick. It may not be your job to mitigate tension between team members, but it will help if you are able to.

Get to know your team as humans and give them the confidence to be able to do their jobs. A happy and functioning team results in a great atmosphere and a great product.

However, empowering your team doesn’t mean setting things up and then busying yourself with other things. A great quote from a manager Kara worked with was “I will give you a lot of rope but never show up to a meeting having hung yourself with it. If you get stuck come to me sooner than later. Say to them, ‘I will be there for you’.”

Empowering the team doesn’t mean never checking in with your team. You just have to demonstrate trust. As Product Owner, you are responsible to the end to end experience, but this doesn’t mean that you have to be down at ground level – in the weeds, so to speak.

Kara gives people titles that matter. For example, a Writer became a Communications Manager. “Whether we like it or not, titles matter. This gives people ownership and pride, driving them to produce for the team.”

Building a clear team structure is also important, to let people know who is responsible for what. “Beyond the title and the vertical, document who is responsible for what. This is great for clarity between teams and for people to understand who does what.”

A big key to success is to find out what is motivating your team. Why do they work for you, why do they show up everyday. “Ask them” says Kara, “and pay attention in meetings to what they say.” Once you know this information, use it as a tool to give them confidence and help them out. A happy team means a great atmosphere… and a great product.

It doesn’t even hurt to sent flowers, wine, or just a note that says, “Thank you for doing that this week! YOU ROCK.” Kara explains that she did this once and the reply surprised her.  “You always seem to reach out just when I need it most, and I didn’t know I needed to hear it. I was ready to walk away today, then your note showed up.” Kara explains that this action only takes minutes but the impact is lasting.

As a product owner, you have the power, the glory and the ability to drive the vision. What you can also do is help people to feel valued. You never know the difference a small gesture can make to the ‘I got this’ feeling of the team.

2. Rally around the cause

Nowadays, people expect seamless experiences for everything from consumer products to enterprise and government products. The increasingly savvy market no longer puts up with bad experiences. This results in increased responsibility to create personalised UX and a more nuanced, specific approach to product development.

Embracing a design driven approach to product management results in a better product.

Create a vision. Write it down. Share it wide.

Talk to the stakeholders. Discuss things with your team. Most importantly, find out the thoughts of the people who will be using what you create. Ask them what success looks like. This helps you learn what motivates people, especially because people’s vision for success tends to be different.

Kara’s personal preference is to start by creating a vision for the deliverable that is rooted in emotion. She asks “How do we want people to feel?”, then comes up with design principles that ladder up to that vision. The decisions you make about your product have to reflect the vision, which mirrors up with the design principles.

“Once you have the vision as well as team buy in on it, have it up on posters and review it at the beginning of your team meetings.” Kara explains that your vision should be a living document that people view and refer to regularly.

Your job is to do check ins, to provide support and to cheer people on while your company achieves its vision.

Case Study

Kara has an interesting tale to tell about her role as PM at TurboTax. The clear vision was to get people their maximum tax refund from the government and the goal was to make the product as easy as possible to use.

The team was working on an early page in the product flow, the first page a customer would see when they signed in. After whiteboarding a couple of options the team came up with a concept where they  talked to people about real-world things they could do with their tax refund: take a holiday, pay off a bill, or party like a rock star.

As a team of product developers, they loved the idea. However it failed miserably in the first round of usability testing. The reason? People loved thinking about what they’d do with their refunds, but completely balked at the headline: “What will you do with your tax refund this year?” Kara’s team heard, loud and clear: “It’s none of your business what I do with it.”

But that didn’t mean they scrapped the entire concept. It just meant a headline tweak, to “Imagine what you’ll do with your tax refund.” After successfully testing this, the result was a multi-million dollar win for the company.

It was by testing content in usability before going live that Kara and her team were able to learn, tweak, and make it better. By keeping their vision in mind, they focused relentlessly on how to make it as easy as possible.

3. Be humble

Kara’s next point for leading successfully as a Product Manager is to be self-aware enough to realise what you don’t know and understand what your deficiencies are.

By being honest and open with your team. Make it clear that you don’t have all the answers and that if something does come up, you’ll work together to figure it out.

Being a leader doesn’t mean you have to know everything. “I’d personally rather work with someone who is good at something but is really passionate about it, rather than someone who is excellent but whose heart isn’t in it. I can always take the good person and help them grow by answering their questions and getting them where they need to be.”

The flow on from this is aligning everyone on their own responsibility. This helps the team to understand who is doing what and also helps the bigger team or organisation know who to go to if they have questions about a particular part of the project. Your team should have a list of each person’s roles and responsibilities that can be reviewed as new people roll on so that everyone knows what’s what.

Kara points out that as the team leader you have to make sure that you have the support you need as well. Build your tribe of confidants from your peer group, other leads and the people at your org who you trust or admire. These are the people who you can turn to when you’re not sure about something yourself.

4. Give away the glory

“I don’t shine if you don’t shine”, otherwise known as Shine Theory, is a theory that can be applied in product management.

Each person has their own preferences for praise so get to know them and figure out what is right for different people.

“The more you tell me I am doing great and encouraging me the more I will do for you”, says Kara. “And I find that most people are the same”.

kara de frias
Kara DeFrias Sketchnotes by Rebecca Jackson

The Product Manager’s Guide to the Care and Feeding of Humans from Kara DeFrias


About Kara DeFrias

Kara DeFrias has a unique mix of private and public sector experience, including an appointment to the first class of White House Presidential Innovation Fellows. She currently serves as Director of UX on the White House Cancer Moonshot team. Previously, she was Senior Advisor to the head of 18F, a digital services agency inside the United States government that’s transforming it from the inside out. Other work includes Intuit TurboTax, the Oscars, Super Bowl, and FIFA Women’s World Cup.


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