The leader’s guide to the care and feeding of humans

Let’s talk about the care and feeding of the humans.

Over the past 10 years, I’ve led teams as small as 5 and as big as 60, putting on successful shows, creating leadership development programs, launching products, reimagining processes, and redesigning organizations. One common link across many of them, is that in a lot of cases, not a single one of those people reported to me. In the “boxes on org charts” sense. So how do you lead successfully, when you don’t have authority? When no one has to listen to you?

  1. Empower the team.
  2. Rally around the cause.
  3. Be humble.
  4. Give away the glory.

Love your team, believe in them with all your heart, and do everything in your power to set them up for success.

The long of it (still relatively simple, if not longer): give them a goal, rally them around the shared vision, work with them to set up their plan for how they’re going to deliver their part, provide air cover when they need help or when there’s conflict or roadblocks, then make sure they know you believe they can do it.

Whether we like it or not, titles matter.

Doing this empowers them, gives them a feeling of ownership, and ultimately they want to succeed because they feel responsible to the rest of the team and the deliverable for their area of expertise. People responded to this action, and rose to the occasion. (Let’s be honest: they knocked it out of the park.) It’s a great example of leadership development that works within the bounds of an org, but is scrappy at the same time.

The Roles and Responsibilities doc. #simple

We’ve talked about the structure and the work, now let’s talk about the humans.

It takes time, but a big key to success is really taking the time to know what makes folks tick — find out what’s intrinsically motivating for your team. This can be accomplished via an icebreaker activity at the beginning of a project or sprint. Or take them out to coffee, or you know, just pay attention to what they say or how they act.

So where do you start?

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

It would be great if we all agree, here today, to not use something like this. It’ll make the world a way better place, promise.

The most important question to ask: What does success look like?

This also helps you learn what intrinsically motivates these folks, which will help you immensely as product manager.

What this looks like in action

Step 1 is identifying your key audiences. Creating a solid end-to-end (E2E) experience is more than just solving for the people who use your product. By also declaring how you want the people involved with creating the product to feel — meaning the humans who build it and the stakeholders — everyone feels valued and taken care of.

  • Verbal recognition in front of group
  • Call out in newsletter or at all-hands meeting
  • Given more responsibility
  • Verbal one-on-one recognition
  • Little notes
  • Flowers or gift basket
  • Speaking at conferences
  • Case studies
  • Press interviews or stories

In closing

I’m always learning, always pivoting, always tweaking these tactics to make it better. I do retrospectives, and ask how it’s going for folks.



Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
Kara DeFrias

Kara DeFrias

White House Sr. Advisor • Fiercely fights for the underdog • Past: Chief of Staff, QuickBooks Online; Obama White House; Women’s World Cup; Oscars; TEDxIntuit