Leadership Through Ownership: A Product Manager’s Guide

 min read
August 31, 2021
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With nearly two decades of business leadership and product management experience, Akanksha Manik Talya is well versed in what it takes to manage a team through periods of crisis.  

She emphasizes the importance of an owner’s mindset: empowering herself, her employees, and her coworkers to collaborate, sacrifice when needed, and speak up when they see issues in order to regain momentum in difficult times. 

In this guide, we’ll get into what it means to have an owner’s mindset, where teams go wrong in achieving and maintaining strong morale, and how product managers are specifically well positioned as leaders to affect change across their organization.

Product Managers & Points of Crisis

Though product management is not often thought of as a traditional leadership role, product managers have their leadership skills tested daily

Product managers are responsible for selling their product vision not just to their team but across the organization so that everyone from executives to developers is on board with a product’s direction. 

They are also often the main communicators between various internal and external stakeholders who may each have their own motivations. They have to network, engage in team building, and build rapport to keep everyone in an organization on the same page and working towards the same goal. 

There’s a reason for this — teamwork creates momentum for a company. But it's critical to keep in mind that momentum is a vector: it not only has magnitude but also direction. The speed of growth and change in an organization is important, but it has to be towards a constructive outcome. Product managers have a unique and very important role to play in ensuring momentum in the right direction. 

So, what does it look like when a company is building momentum in the wrong direction? 

Consider a company undergoing layoffs and implementing austerity measures. Employees may start worrying about their livelihoods, which might make them competitive and closed off to collaboration. 

Productivity and employee satisfaction go down, potentially leading to more lay-offs and austerity measures. This is not an easy cycle to stop and is a prime example of a company building momentum in the wrong direction.

Crisis brings the best and worst out of leaders and teams. If you’re a product manager at such a company, what do you do? How do you lead and regain morale through a difficult time? Working backward from customer and market needs is table-stakes. However, translating that customer and market into positive internal catalysts and leadership is absolutely critical for turning directions.  

For a model of positive leadership, let’s take a look at football coach Matt LaFleur and the changes he was able to put into place when he took over the Green Bay Packers in 2019. 

The Matt LaFleur Effect

Before LaFleur became coach, the Packers had endured two losing seasons in 2017 and 2018. The team had lost their star player to an injury, experienced coaching turnovers, and had their first shut-out loss in over a decade. For two years in a row, they failed to make the playoffs, and pressure was high.

They were winning games —  but through luck, not skill. Increasingly, they were forced to face a harsh reality: No matter how hard you or your teammates push, you can’t out-execute a bad strategy. 

Success per se is not the sign of a high-performing team. High-performing teams need to have both processes and predictability in place so they can succeed, not by chance, but through replicable and measurable processes that reliably lead to wins. 

During the 2017 and 2018 seasons, the Packers didn’t have these processes in place. They weren’t operating as a cohesive whole working towards the same goal. There was a great deal of performance pressure, and every loss created more insecurity for each player. Instructions came down from coaches without necessary context, and decision-making was vague and left up to consensus. 

In 2019 and 2020, however, LaFleur and the Packers were able to win two consecutive NFC North titles. Not only that, but LaFleur was the youngest coach to ever do so. 

So how did he do it? A study of his leadership methods during this decisive period provides product managers and other leaders an actionable framework for nurturing an owner’s mindset and turning around team culture and performance. 

How to Encourage an Owner’s Mindset

To encourage an owner’s mindset in your team, follow these 6 steps:

  1. Create psychological safety
  2. Give employees a voice
  3. Make tough calls with transparency
  4. Be both a “cheerleader” and a “coach”
  5. Foster collaboration
  6. Celebrate sacrifice

Step 1: Create Psychological Safety

LaFleur expected a lot from his players, but he also wanted them to retain the joy of the game and stay relaxed. Let’s think about a company going through a reorg. This can be a stressful time for employees, who may be worried if there will be a place for them in the new structure, and if they will be happy with that place. 

All these worries create a lack of psychological safety, which leads to competitiveness, undermines collaboration, and keeps employees from feeling safe enough to speak their minds. 

Essentially, if someone is worried about being fired, they aren’t going to be pushing for change or trying to innovate. 

As a product manager, how do you instill psychological safety in yourself and your coworkers during periods of crisis? 

LaFleur started by making sure his players knew they wouldn’t be punished for speaking up. He heard all of his players out and created spaces where voicing feedback was encouraged. 

He also believed in separating performance from process. Performance conversations can and should happen often, but only in thoughtful and structured ways, and not when an employee is deep in their work. 

It is difficult for someone to be fully present in their work if they are receiving constant feedback; comments that come too often may lead to overthinking or increased pressure to perform. In sports, for example, performance is best measured over a season rather than an individual game, which alleviates pressure and allows players to be present enough to rediscover joy in the game itself. 

As a product manager, you can build psychological safety on your team by applying the rest of the guidelines in this list, modeling the way you give and receive feedback, and championing your teammates’ professional and personal development. 

Step 2: Give Employees a Voice

One of LaFleur’s primary beliefs was that players should have a voice, and they shouldn’t be afraid of communicating their concerns. 

Problems in process are often felt long before they reach a breaking point. By encouraging employees to speak up, you can put out these future fires before they happen. 

In other words: reward your fire alarms rather than your firefighters. 

As a product manager, this could look like not only celebrating teammates who reactively fix issues once they crop up, but also celebrating when someone catches a bug during development or calls out a critical feature that needs improvement before a product launch.

It’s not always easy to notice when crises are averted through proactive measures, but these are the successes truly deserving of a shout-out; employees will feel secure speaking up early and often if they are rewarded for doing so. 

Step 3: Make Tough Calls With Transparency

Employees should always feel that they have a voice, but ultimately a leader has to make decisions in the best interest of their team. If they wait for consensus before making decisions, they will be waiting a while. Perfect consensus may never be achieved, and hesitation can be a roadblock for growth.

Product managers are often in positions where they need to weigh a decision that may be best for an individual product against one that may be best for a portfolio as a whole or make quick but thoughtful decisions when a feature is straying from budget or delivery timeline. A leader has to know when to make these tough calls, and how to communicate their reasoning in a way that fosters transparency and trust. 

But it can be difficult to be transparent at times, especially if you are experiencing insecurity yourself. Remember not to shy away from failure or the parts of your skillset that need development. A company needs to promote open discussion about failures, not just wins. 

For example, let’s imagine you work for a company that makes jet engine planes and you’re in charge of quality assurance. If your reliability rate is 95%, you shouldn’t be satisfied to call this number a win because it seems high at first glance. A 95% reliability rate, after all, means that every time a plane takes off, there is a 5% chance of malfunction. 

In a culture that doesn’t shy away from failure, where individuals are empowered by frank and non-judgmental discussions about points of weakness, you are best positioned to speak up and get this 95% to 100% without the worry that a “failure” will reflect badly on you. 

This culture shift has to come from the top down. Product managers can promote this transparency and model it through the way they take ownership of tough calls, and talk openly about their own points of development. 

The key aspect here is to make these decisions in a timely manner, and communicate your reasoning so everyone understands the trade-offs made in light of the stakes at hand. 

Step 4: Be Both a “Cheerleader” And a “Coach”

The best leaders are those who demand much from their team, but that do so with empathy and while taking into account their employees’ needs.,

Fostering a team spirit while making tough calls can be a fine balance. Leaning too far to one side can lead you to be perceived as too soft and incapable of making difficult calls, and leaning too far to the other side can make you seem too harsh towards your teammates or direct reports. 

Product managers should actively work to strike this balance. In their role, they have to be strong at both collaborating with others and making decisions. They need to assert their point of view when a feature needs to be prioritized or a budget needs to be applied while leaving room for other voices and stakeholder needs. 

If you are able to be both “cheerleader” and “coach” for your teammates, they will trust that they will receive both encouragement and constructive feedback from you when necessary, and be more open to turning to you for mentorship. This dynamic strengthens relationships, and strong relationships are an integral part of cultivating an owner’s mindset on your team.  

Step 5: Foster Collaboration & Play for the Man/Woman Next To You. 

To Matt LaFleur, it was important that his team be “player-led”. “You’re not playing for me”, he would tell his players, “you’re playing for one another.” 

This applies to the tech realm as well, where it’s often the case that a team performs better when people take care of each other and make sure everyone has the resources they need.

When employees are working for their boss and not for one another, this can be a clear sign of dysfunction on a team. It means that employees are mindlessly executing orders rather than understanding or feeling tied to the reasons behind what they are doing. As a result, they will not perform as well or feel as motivated. Whether you’re on a football field, in an office, or working remotely everyone should be aware of the larger goals and stakes at hand. 

This is easier said than done, but product managers can work to create a collaborative atmosphere by encouraging new ideas, building team relationships, and highlighting the company vision often. 

Step 6: Celebrate Sacrifice

In football, as in other sports, sacrifices are expected. In basketball, for example, a player may give up a shot if another player has a better opening, or game strategy may be built around someone with a particular skill set in order to give the entire team a better chance of winning. 

Teammates have to learn how to “give up their legos”, that is, share resources and ownership in order to improve the outcome of a project as a whole. 

As a product manager, you should learn and invest in your teammates’ strengths, and take advantage of opportunities to bring someone in where they can add value. 

This involves some ego work, especially if a company’s culture is already competitive. The important idea to instill in yourself and your coworkers is that the team’s successes are everyone’s successes. You can do this by celebrating people when they have gone above and beyond, and recognize the sacrifices that individuals make that may be outside of their job description. 

For example, a demo team may be on the lookout for bugs before a product hits the customer. They may take initiative to proactively report these bugs back to the developers even though they don’t have to. 

This scenario presents a win-win for everyone involved: the developers will address problems before they affect the customer, the customer will have a better user experience, and the demo team will have their sacrifice shouted out and celebrated internally. 

It is important, however, to be wary of the line between celebrating sacrifice and promoting a toxic work environment, especially because during periods of crisis, a fair amount of employees may already be experiencing burnout. In these cases, it can be helpful to thank your employees for their hard work while also acknowledging that the process isn’t perfect yet. A statement as simple as “thank you, and we have got to find a way that you don’t have to fire-fight so much” can go a long way to signal what is and is not a welcome part of company culture. 

The Relationship Between Leadership And Influence

Product managers can apply the six principles above to help make sure everyone on their team and in their wider organization is coming to the table with an owner’s mindset. 

But what if you don’t feel comfortable stepping up as a leader, or your team isn’t receptive to your efforts? 

“It takes courage to speak up, but it takes goodwill to be heard.” — Adam Grant

Product managers need to have a basic understanding of how influence works in order to achieve their desired results and get stakeholder buy-in for their vision. If you’re having trouble garnering influence with your coworkers, ask yourself whether you need more courage, more goodwill, or both. 

Courage can be gained over time through experience, and by building your self-esteem in your abilities and ideas. Goodwill is also not built overnight. People will gain trust in you as you continue to show up for your team in the ways listed above, and continue to invest in the others around you as well as in your company as a whole. 

As a product manager, you have the rare opportunity to apply leadership tenets and instill an owner’s mindset not only in yourself but in your coworkers and direct reports. If this work is done early, it can help establish a culture that will set your organization up for success in times of crisis. 

Using the principles laid out in this guide, work to empower yourself and your coworkers to collaborate, speak up, and sacrifice for the greater good, and when difficult periods arise, your organization will be better equipped to weather them. 

Note: If you’re an experienced professional looking to gain clarity on your next move, check out Execs On Deck

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