What Does ‘Ownership’ Really Mean?

Leaders from six growing tech teams discuss autonomy, collaboration and cultivating team success through individual contribution.
Written by Robert Schaulis
August 11, 2022Updated: August 29, 2022

While “ownership” in the workplace may seem like an easy enough concept to understand, the term can often easily be conflated with absolute control. At the level of a small project, it’s easy enough for engineers to own every aspect of a product or piece of code. But what does ownership mean when that engineer has to work collaboratively at scale? 

Jonathan Zaleski, vice president of engineering at social media startup Ibble, encountered this challenge when, as a young software developer, he was presented with two competing goals — the desire to be a “rockstar programmer” with absolute command over his projects and the desire to help facilitate his team’s continued success as he grew into a leadership role. 

“While doing everything my way by myself did lead to predictable outputs, to really facilitate a culture of ownership, I needed to become comfortable with letting other people grow, take the reins and make mistakes,” said Zaleski. “Ultimately, those kinds of mistakes could be used as teaching opportunities in order to help figure out their style as leaders, individual contributors or even partners.”

Sonya Imm, senior director of engineering for digital banking company Q2, sees this as a common misapprehension.

“I think sometimes the concept of ownership within the context of product engineering can be confusing. Some conflate ownership with ‘doing,’” said Imm. At Q2, Imm and her team work to correct that misapprehension of ownership and instead have team members work toward shared goals beyond the scope of any individual engineer’s workload. 

Read on for more from six engineering leaders championing ownership in the Austin tech scene. 

 

Deidre Harvego
Senior Director of Engineering

 

A part of global insurance company Acrisure, Acrisure Technology Group leverages AI-based solutions and aggregates business and individual risk data to better service Acrisure’s clients and trading partners. 

 

What does a culture of ownership mean to your team?

In my team, a culture of ownership is one in which folks feel connected to the things that we work on. It’s characterized by each person feeling confidence in their ability to accomplish the work, being motivated to deliver something that they feel good about and having an appropriate level of autonomy.

 

What are the essential behaviors for a leader looking to exemplify and spread a culture of ownership across a team of engineers?

A leader must first model a behavior of personal accountability for a culture of ownership to take root. 

Leaders need to communicate bi-directionally to ensure their team members have the right level of information they need while also giving them enough space to figure some things out on their own. 

Finally, leaders must help their team members feel safe. Treat mistakes as learning opportunities. Reward honesty. Celebrate success.

A leader must first model a behavior of personal accountability for a culture of ownership to take root.

 

What was your biggest challenge in spreading a culture of ownership when you first became a leader, and how did you overcome it?

When I first became a manager, I prioritized deadlines and deliverables over developing my team. I spent a lot of time writing my team members’ code to meet delivery dates or fix bugs rather than fostering a culture of shared ownership. 

I overcame this challenge by getting more comfortable with accepting risk and being intentional on where I spend my time.

 

 

Chris Elgin
Senior Director of Engineering, Data Platform

 

Through the company’s two market-facing businesses — NeueHealth and Bright HealthCare — Bright Health Group both ​​provides care delivery and enablement services to more than 500,000 patients through owned and affiliated clinics. It also offers commercial and Medicare health plan products to more than a million consumers in the U.S.

 

What does a culture of ownership mean to your team at Bright Health?

A culture of ownership means shared accountability. No one person can know or do everything. But collectively, we have the knowledge and experience to get the job done.  

Accountability expands beyond just the product itself into the peer relationships. It involves questions like, “how can I help the new person get up to speed?” and “what prior experience does my colleague have that might be useful in this situation?” The way we engage and support each other differentiates a team from a collection of individuals. Ownership isn’t just about how we support the product. It’s about how we support each other.

Ownership isn’t just about how we support the product. It’s about how we support each other.

 

What are the essential behaviors for a leader looking to exemplify and spread a culture of ownership across a team of engineers?

Two keys to fostering a culture of ownership are perspective and collaboration.  

It can be difficult to see the forest for the trees at times, but having a sense of the bigger picture and how our actions influence it is important. We have to appreciate that we don’t work in isolation — that everything we do has impact. This awareness amplifies the need to really understand problems and own the solutions.

Without collaboration, we’re just solving problems in silos. No one likes getting that support call for a product or feature with which they’re unfamiliar and having to wade into a foreign codebase and try to interpret the previous engineer’s intent. Collaboration allows us to have a greater understanding of the solution and the path that led us to this solution. In turn, we develop a better sense of ownership over the product itself.

 

What was your biggest challenge in spreading a culture of ownership when you first became a leader, and how did you overcome it?

The biggest challenge for me has been the shift from assertions to questions — the shift from “I can” to “can we?”

As an engineer, I’m the closest to the code. I have a good sense of how to approach a given problem, and I can speak to my personal capacity to provide a solution relative to everything else on my plate.

As a manager, I need to provide a safe place for the team to vocalize their ideas and concerns and support them as they collaborate on a solution. I have to respect the team’s decision and represent it to the broader organization.

 

 

Sonya Imm
Sr. Director, Engineering

 

Q2 provides digital banking and lending solutions to banks, credit unions, alternative finance and fintech companies. Through the company’s cloud-based digital solutions, Q2’s customers have access to suites of digital banking, banking as a service, lending and leasing services.

 

What does a culture of ownership mean to your team at Q2?

I think sometimes the concept of ownership within the context of product engineering can be confusing. Some conflate ownership with “doing.” They think that whatever the project or initiative is, if they own it, it means they do all the work and put in all the effort. 

On my team we strive to change that perception. Ownership means taking responsibility and accountability for the success of a project from start to finish — owning the process and outcomes and becoming really invested in its success. 

What’s more, all our developers have ownership of projects at one point or another, regardless of their stage of career. Everyone has personal investment in the success of our product. Through this practice, natural leaders emerge organically, which has an extremely positive effect on our already strong sense of community and our inclusive culture here at Q2.

 

What are the essential behaviors for a leader looking to exemplify and spread a culture of ownership across a team of engineers?

I see these more as qualities rather than behaviors — humility, openness, trust — and maybe even a willingness to take risks. You must be motivational and inspirational and help your team be their best selves. You do that by creating a safe and comfortable work environment where people’s ideas are listened to, considered and acted upon.

Encouraging the team to dive in and make a project their own and giving your team autonomy to make decisions is hugely important; as is treating each mistake or misstep as a learning opportunity. To foster the sense of ownership, leaders must be servants to their team, support them in all they do and get out of their way. Q2 makes it easy for us to do that for our teams by supporting us as leaders in the same way. We’re most definitely a bottom-up organization.

Leaders must be servants to their team, support them in all they do and get out of their way.

 

What was your biggest challenge in spreading a culture of ownership when you first became a leader, and how did you overcome it?

Understanding that not all people want to be an owner. That is more than OK. To understand who wants what, you have to really get to know your team and everyone on it. This helps you make sure that everyone is in the right spot and in a role that makes them comfortable and productive. Understanding what drives and motivates someone is critical to their success and your own. 

Encourage those on the team who do want to take the next step. Coach them as they develop their own team-building and ownership skills. As leaders, we must take the time to make sure that our teams are operating at the best level they can. And to do that, we need to support and understand these folks on a deeper level.

 

 

Scott Henderson
Vice President of Central Technology

 

A digital game developer and publisher, SciPlay creates free-to-play casino games for mobile and web platforms. 

 

What does a culture of ownership mean to your team at SciPlay?

Some companies in the gaming industry are known for being siloed. Employees tend to keep their work to themselves rather than collaborate with other team members to spark new ideas. To counter this cycle and create a culture of ownership where employees are deeply invested in their work, senior leadership should actively communicate the company’s goals and how each employee’s tasks contributes to the overarching vision. When team members understand the big picture and goals of the company, how they operate at work will change. 

Setting this standard for accountability from the top down helps it stick. A company’s leaders, from executives to managers, are responsible for instilling ownership in their teams. When employees see how their contributions enable company goals to be met, they are more likely to feel confident in their role and will want to take ownership of their work. As a result, an organization’s culture can be radically changed from one of siloed tasks to one of enthusiastic collaboration — which will boost results.

 

What are the essential behaviors for a leader looking to exemplify and spread a culture of ownership across a team of engineers?

Effective communication is the most vital factor to success. Reinforcing business goals and helping employees understand what their exact contributions should look like creates a sense of clarity and minimizes siloed work. Leaders have the dual responsibility of ensuring employees’ ideas are acknowledged while focusing them on the short-term goals that need to be met. To execute on both, leaders should prioritize when and how to communicate with their engineers. 

In cases where an employee has a breakthrough idea that doesn’t align with current business goals, managers should be clear about why they won’t be taking action  and what to expect in the future. A leader’s ability to clarify their reasoning while commending the employee in the process will go a long way in improving the company’s culture of ownership. Leaders should always remember to keep the end goal in mind: ensuring employees understand how their contributions add up to achieving success for the company.

Encouraging introspection when an initiative doesn’t go according to plan can help employees realize their need for a new approach.

 

What was your biggest challenge in spreading a culture of ownership when you first became a leader, and how did you overcome it?

Overcoming a sense of complacency. Employees with longer tenures tend to rely on familiar processes, which can make them less adaptable to new and potentially more efficient methods. Resistance to change can impede a culture of ownership because employees are unwilling to alter their perspectives to meet the company’s evolving business goals. 

To overcome these entrenched attitudes, it’s more effective to ask employees reflective questions than prescribe solutions outright. Encouraging introspection when an initiative doesn’t go according to plan can help employees realize their need for a new approach. When employees come to a personal realization about where things went wrong, they are more likely to change their behaviors. 

Leading by example is another effective way to support these employees. It’s less about telling my team what you want them to do and more about giving them the power to own their tasks while understanding how their contributions are advancing the company. While leaders shouldn’t expect to change their culture overnight, their efforts will pay off over time if they are consistently practiced.

 

 

Jonathan Zaleski
Vice President Of Engineering

 

Social media startup Ibble allows users to explore and engage with a variety of expert communities through on-demand thread-based video and audio content from their mobile devices. 

 

What does a culture of ownership mean to your team at Ibble?

A culture of ownership or, stated differently, “a culture of owning the middle ground,” starts with empowering and enabling a team. It is fundamentally based in trust of oneself and other members of the team. While to some degree that trust is earned, everyone on the team should have an equal seat at the table, which will help enable both inter- and intra-disciplinary collaboration, accountability and buy-in — all of which help get things done.

 

What are the essential behaviors for a leader looking to exemplify and spread a culture of ownership across a team of engineers?

Communication is key. It is essential for a leader to help the team members understand that it is OK to make mistakes, that they are not alone and that we’re all moving toward the same goal. Lead by example. Roll up your sleeves and get into the trenches to help people along at times. 

It is incredibly important to keep communication channels open and clearly articulate current goals, areas for improvement and vision for the team, the product and the company.

I needed to become comfortable with letting other people grow, take the reins and make mistakes.

 

What was your biggest challenge in spreading a culture of ownership when you first became a leader, and how did you overcome it?

Much earlier in my career, I was an aspiring “rockstar programmer.” While I was very good at what I was doing, this behavior does not scale and was not conducive to the kind of team-building, ownership and empowerment I discussed in the previous responses. 

While doing everything my way by myself did lead to predictable outputs, to really facilitate a culture of ownership, I needed to become comfortable with letting other people grow, take the reins and make mistakes. Ultimately, those kinds of mistakes could be used as teaching opportunities in order to help figure out their style as leaders, individual contributors or even partners. Learning to change my process did not happen overnight. But with practice, persistence and radical candor, I became the leader I am today.

 

 

Christian Burck
Director, Software Engineering

 

Levelset is a construction software company that helps customers simplify compliance and payment processes, decrease financial risks and improve cash flow.

 

What does a culture of ownership mean to your team at Levelset?

Trust. We empower our team members to move forward and do the work that needs to get done. We create an environment where everyone knows what they are working on and why. That context allows our team members to be more engaged in the project and in what they are building because they understand the background and power of the outcome. 

We are all integral to the team, no matter the level or role, and we make sure everyone knows that. A culture of ownership means that each team member can feel confident that the technical knowledge they bring is trusted.

A culture of ownership means that each team member can feel confident that the technical knowledge they bring is trusted.

 

What are the essential behaviors for a leader looking to exemplify and spread a culture of ownership across a team of engineers?

Know the people you are working with really well. Understand each individual’s values, both personally and professionally. This knowledge helps build the foundation of trust needed to create the individual sense of ownership, which brings us together as a collective. Know what your people care about and understand what you can do to support it. Look at their successes and failures to identify how you help them have a meaningful impact.

 

What was your biggest challenge in spreading a culture of ownership when you first became a leader, and how did you overcome it?

Thinking that I had to do everything myself. I learned quickly to trust my team and to ignore the impulse to just do it all. 

As a manager, you don’t have to be the one who reviews and approves everything. Yes, you are responsible. But you don’t have to do it all. Shifting into a leadership role, you must let go of that idea and focus on the greater impact of your actions.

 

 

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