When your company scales past 40ish people, things change. You’re likely to start hiring product managers – that is, people whose job is to run certain areas of your product. As the founder, you’re no longer directly in control. There’s someone else sitting between you and the designers and engineers making the magic. This, it turns out, can be a very confusing transition for both the founder and the team.
—Seth Sternberg (2013) Leading Product Without Disempowering

I find fascinating that the whole article seems putting this topic in terms of pure “process”. It’s not pure process. We are people! :)

But it’s an excellent story, and an excellent perspective Seth is giving us. So I’d like to review that giving a different perspective.

The founder has most of the time a personal, emotional attachment to the product, and that’s the main thing to acknowledge, before anything else about vision, process, and management.

Of course there’s attachment. It’s the founder’s creature, and suddenly it’s left in the hands of others. This transition is as much process transition, as it is personal growth for the founder. If only it was as easy as changing just the process!

This doesn’t mean the process suggested there isn’t good. It works. But it’s just part of the game – and I would argue, the least important part of it.

Let me disassemble the story – but read the full article first:

I did what most founders do, I held onto minute control. This expressed itself in the dreaded “drive by.”

This is an action (process) that however shows attachment and distrust. This parent isn’t able to let the child go, and so keeps being there even if the child moved to a new family.

In other words, this is a matter of trust.

The signal the founder is sending here is: I don’t trust you with the product – thus I micromanage. To be clear: I don’t mean that there’s intentionality. There’s commitment: these people were hired. The founder is doing this in good faith. It’s most likely an unconscious thing. But it sends mixed signals.


You’d probably abdicate control. You’d probably stop thinking creatively. Stop being proactive.

If we acknowledge that the center point of this is the individual and not the process, and it’s as much about attachment as it is about trust, we see clearly why the next action described didn’t work out:

Eventually, my reaction was to pull back. I could see how my behavior was disempowering, so I chose to give people full ownership.

In a relationship, trust isn’t conveyed either by being too controlling, nor by disappearing. If I trust you, I’ll keep being engaged with you, but I don’t micromanage.

Then, the awakening:

But then it clicked. I came upon a way of managing product where the founder maintains product direction, even at quite a detailed level, without disempowering. It turns out it’s all about cadence of feedback and expectations.

Feedback and expectations. Vision without micromanagement. Real trust.

What’s even more interesting is that since Seth isn’t acknowledging the human side of the issue, of course the problem will be there even with this new process:

There are a number of edge cases to watch for. Eg, if you find yourself dramatically altering the team’s approach at each of your review meetings, something’s wrong.

Whoops. This means that the process didn’t solve a thing!

Seth solved it, by understanding himself better, and putting a better process in place that aligned with his personal growth. This doesn’t work if you do just the process side, or just the human side. It needs to do both.


If you want to read more on the subject, I suggest the Hybrid Traits Model.

Thanks to Mel for the link.