How Do You Build A Culture of Ownership? 5 NYC Engineering Leaders Have Some Advice.

These leaders found that doing the work yourself — even when you have the most expertise — does not yield the best results.
Written by Olivia Arnold
August 9, 2022Updated: August 9, 2022

When Dave Hauenstein first became an engineering manager, he sometimes saw his team’s work wasn’t getting done, or it wasn’t being completed exactly the way he wanted. While trying to be helpful and meticulous, Hauenstein made a mistake common for first-time managers: he jumped in and did the work himself.

This didn’t go over well on his engineering team. It was not an empowering or inspiring move,  Hauenstein admits, and his team ended up feeling frustrated with him. This taught him an important lesson. 

“The first thing I realized is that I wasn’t always right,” said Hauenstein, who is now vice president of engineering at Particle Health. “Giving folks the space to make decisions and own the outcomes of these decisions often leads to better solutions than I would’ve come to.”

Teachable moments like Hauenstein’s are common for engineering managers working to build a culture of ownership on their teams. With time and experience, the leaders interviewed below discovered that doing the work themselves — even when they have more expertise — was not the most effective way to motivate teams or receive the best product results. 

Engineering teams with a strong culture of ownership care about the success of all companywide projects throughout every stage, from inception through product support. When something goes wrong, these teams do not point fingers. Instead, they put their heads down and work together, collaborating to resolve the issue and prevent future setbacks. 

For leaders implementing a culture of ownership, communication is a two-way street. Managers act as guides, sharing the knowledge necessary to solve issues without forcing set solutions on their teams. They know they don’t have all the answers and encourage their employees to speak up, listening to fresh ideas and diverse approaches. This results in engineering teams who are more invested in the company and devoted to designing the best product possible for the customer. 

Built In New York sat down with engineering leaders from Squarespace, OwnBackup, iCapital, Hungryroot and Particle Health to discuss their advice for creating a culture of ownership. 

 

Squarespace team members in the office
Squarespace

 

Ross Messing
Engineering Team Manager • Squarespace

 

At Squarespace, a website building and e-commerce platform, a culture of ownership means caring about every code and system beyond the ones you personally create. To achieve this, Engineering Team Manager Ross Messing leads with empathy, trading in finger pointing and blame games for support and collaboration. 

 

What does a culture of ownership mean to your team?

A culture of ownership means that my team cares about more than just the code and systems that we each formally own. All of our stakeholders rely on us and, in return, we rely on them. Software is all about interconnected abstractions. 

On the machine learning team, in order to provide value, we depend on one set of stakeholders for data and another set to call our models and systems to provide value to our customers. As a specialist team, we strive to ensure that we are supporting all of our upstream and downstream stakeholders with our expertise. This investment not only ensures that we can see problems coming, but helps us build a culture that reflects our technical and professional values.

All of our stakeholders rely on us and, in return, we rely on them. Software is all about interconnected abstractions.

 

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

I believe an essential behavior for a leader is empathy. Often, priorities shift and there are fires to be put out. In my opinion, ownership failure happens when there is finger pointing and blame games. 

Meanwhile, having empathy for the people on your team eliminates negative responses to problems. When I lead by example in this empathetic way, it sets an expectation for my team to reciprocate support to one another. Who doesn’t want to be part of a team like that?

 

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 began leading the machine learning team, there were logistical concerns and stakeholders with varied priorities. The first thing I set out to do was to establish a clear sense of ownership across my team. I also worked to develop stakeholder trust in my team’s ability to understand their needs and to best support them. 

To accomplish this, I had to really listen to my team and our stakeholders and ultimately make hard choices to set my team on a clear path forward. Because of this, my team was confident in their ability to own projects and lean into solving problems. Additionally, my confidence as a leader and support for my team empowered other teams throughout the organization.

 

 

OwnBackup team members celebrating
OwnBackup

 

Gilad Abraham
Director of Engineering • Own Company

 

For leaders at OwnBackup, a SaaS data protection platform, communication and transparency are key when it comes to building a culture of ownership. Engineering managers share information on projects and allow their teams to come up with solutions. Director of Engineering Gilad Abraham also recognizes that failures are a natural part of product development and he isn’t afraid to admit when mistakes are made, modeling accountability for his team. 

 

What does a culture of ownership mean to your team?

A culture of ownership means that when you get a task, you are responsible to get it done from the start to the end of it. When you are in a meeting, you have to make sure you understand the context of what your teammates are doing. 

It also means identifying problems, proposing a plan of action to solve those issues and caring about the success of the product.

 

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

Leaders looking to exemplify a culture of ownership need to first share information. The more your employees know about the project, product and the entire organization, the more in control they feel. Managers also need to build trust by moving from telling their team what they should do to why we need a given solution, leaving the “how” to the team. 

It is vital to admit that failures are a natural part of business and product development. Unfortunately, many leaders are still too afraid of making and admitting to making even the smallest of mistakes. Finally, leaders need a “we” approach; because of the collective accountability and culture of failure, we all lose and fail together — as a team. 

Managers need to build trust by moving from telling their team what they should do to why we need a given solution, leaving the ‘how’ to the team.

 

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

One challenge was recruiting the right people. It was very hard to validate the level of ownership in candidates. Another challenge was keeping the team stable. Usually, there are rapid changes in the team structure; people come and go, and business directions change due to marketing or managerial reasons.

Then, there is alignment with other teams. Even if you’re doing everything correctly, your team is exposed to other teams’ feedback all the time. Finally, we need to ensure we are doing tasks that we were asked to do by the developers themselves, and not only from the product. Secure capacity to items we agree are important such as refactor code, performance, etc.

 

 

ICapital group photo outside with a lake in the background
iCapital

 

Marcy D’Amore
Vice President, Corporate Technology • iCapital

 

At iCapital, a company that offers tech-based solutions for buying and selling alternative investments, managers share updates on where the team is at and where it’s aiming to go. Then, they encourage and listen to team members’ suggestions for how to get there. 

 

What does a culture of ownership mean to your team?

A culture of ownership promotes an environment in which team members own their tasks. It allows the team to feel a sense of ownership and accomplishment, but it guides them where and when needed. While team members own their tasks through completion, they know they can count on you to move things to the finish line. 

Being accountable and showing up for your teammates helps them grow and trust their counterparts — not just with the everyday work tasks, but with all work challenges. With team members owning their individual work assignments, it helps them flourish and elevate their respective skill sets. In turn, this instills confidence in their colleagues’ capabilities and provides assurances that tasks will not fall on a single person.

While team members own their tasks through completion, they know they can count on [their leader] to move things to the finish line.

 

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

My motto is to lead by example. This means being consistent with your daily approach, clear and concise on the team’s expectations, and accountable so that your team knows they have your support when faced with challenges. 

Communication is key: Share with your team members where we are today and where the team is going. Listen to what team members say and make changes where you see fit. Challenge your team members to speak up confidently both within the team and the organization. Give your team members the tools to learn and elevate their career by guiding and mentoring them.

 

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

My biggest challenge was trying not to make too many changes all at once, allowing the necessary time to pass to assess the team’s culture and dynamics. As humans, I think it is in our DNA to make changes when we see that things are not working; but on the business side, we need to allow things to unfold and identify those areas of improvement. I am a firm believer that the more you learn and observe what does and doesn’t work with your team, the more it helps you understand how to make groups more efficient, collaborative and cohesive.

I recently had the opportunity to change my team’s dynamics and culture. I learned the most crucial step in making changes within a group is to make sure your team understands the changes that are going to occur and how they may impact the group. 

Having a vision — and gaining the team’s trust so they can see that the end result is for the betterment of the team or organization — is important. To summarize, it is vital to lead by example; allow your team members to see that they have your support; instill the importance of ownership; and have that feeling of accomplishment as a team.

 

 

Benjamin Zhang
Lead Software Engineer • Hungryroot


At Hungryroot, an AI-powered personalized grocery service, a culture of ownership is preserved through knowledge sharing among engineering team members. This means that people share their expertise with the rest of the team, preventing knowledge gaps from forming and improving companywide efficiency. 

 

What does a culture of ownership mean to your team?

Ownership has many dimensions in our team. It’s anywhere between owning a piece of code, to a new feature of our platform, to an entire system that affects end users. 

Being a relatively small and agile team, it’s no surprise that after a short period of time, one of us becomes the go-to person for a particular project or knowledge domain. Over time, we share our expertise in these areas and eventually share the ownership with other members. This helps to bridge knowledge gaps and makes our teamwork more efficient, which also frees up the original knowledge owners to move on to something new. 

Our recommendation engine is the perfect example. The current version has been around for about three years. It has mostly been a “blackbox” and maintained by the original developer who implemented it. When I took over about a year ago, I worked closely with the original developer and we were able to smooth out the learning curve. Now, I am doing the same thing for the rest of my team so they can understand the ins and outs of the system and eventually take over. 

That’s one of things that I especially like about our team and culture — there’s always opportunity to grow and own something new.

That’s one of things that I especially like about our team and culture — there’s always opportunity to grow and own something new.

 

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

As engineers, it has to start with the code we write. When working in a team environment, we are not just writing code for our tickets, but also for the rest of the team and our future selves to review and maintain. Therefore, we follow good practices and rigorous code review processes. 

Communication is equally important. There are many collaborations within the same team and across teams. To be able to contribute high-quality code, we need to understand the real problems we are solving. Therefore, we also own our communication by asking clarifying questions, collaborating with feature owners on defining the problems and working with the rest of the team to develop and ship the right solution.

 

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

It took time to adjust to the new role coming from a background as an individual contributor, for whom the priority is to finish one’s own work with high quality and to take on exciting new challenges. At the very beginning, I was sharing work on some of the projects I owned, but not the ownership itself. In other words, I was still the only go-to person for those projects, which limited the velocity of our progress and, to a certain degree, the growth of other members on the team. 

We addressed this with in-depth code review sessions and knowledge-sharing workshops, and also by involving other members in our architectural decision making. This approach allowed the team to have a better idea of our system as a whole, how their work affects one another and what to look out for during code reviews or new system designs. I am very proud that some of the projects I used to own are now handled even better by members of my team.

 

 

Dave Hauenstein
VP, Engineering • Particle Health

 

Leaders at healthtech company Particle Health, which hosts a platform for safely sharing patient data with healthcare providers, believe that empowering teams with context and autonomy leads to more accountability. Engineering managers also prioritize outcomes over implementation details, incentivizing teams to be mindful of design decisions that affect the product over its entire lifespan. 

 

What does a culture of ownership mean to your team?

A culture of ownership means giving small, empowered teams the context and autonomy to make key decisions while being incentivized to own the outcomes of those decisions, both good and bad.

Context is usually shared through company performance metrics like top-line revenue, gross margins and customer churn. If you can cascade these metrics down to specific lines of business or more granularly to product features, then teams will better understand how their contributions have a tangible effect on the company. Going a step further, democratizing access to data through business intelligence tooling allows individuals to seek out insight of their own volition that suits their needs.

Finally, by focusing more on outcomes over implementation details, you can empower teams to make decisions over the problem area in which they’re responsible; this unlocks autonomy. When a team has end-to-end ownership, they’re also expected to run software after it’s been deployed to production. This will incentivize the team to make design decisions that optimize not only for speed-to-value, but those that reduce the likelihood of outages or make it faster to fix when there is an incident.

A tactic for empowering teams and individuals is prioritizing outcomes over implementation details.

 

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

Be willing to do the work. I try to never ask my team to do something I wouldn’t hold myself accountable to doing. As the head of the department, the buck stops with me, and before I delegate something to my team, I do my best to get a “felt understanding” of the problem. This will give me a more well-rounded understanding of the situation while gaining empathy for the people on the teams tasked with addressing it.

A leader looking to create a culture of ownership has to not only set out a vision, but operationalize it; knowing what processes, technologies and team structures to put in place — and then rolling them out — is critical. A tactic for empowering teams and individuals is prioritizing outcomes over implementation details. An engineer building an authentication service might be told, “99th percentile HTTP requests must complete under 30 milliseconds, and token revocation must happen instantly with account termination.” Then, how these requirements are fulfilled is up to the team.

Finally, providing business context as a way to reduce information asymmetry between leadership and delivery teams doesn’t end after the first time you do it; set your expectations early that it’s a continuous job.

 

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

Like a lot of first-time managers, when I saw the work wasn’t getting done or the work wasn’t getting done exactly the way I’d do it, I went and did it myself. This wasn’t particularly empowering or inspiring. My team felt frustrated with me, and they were right to.

The first thing I realized is that I wasn’t always right. Giving folks the space to make decisions and own the outcomes of these decisions often leads to better solutions than I would’ve come to. In instances when I actually had something to add, I found that two things helped: One, when my personal experience was highly relevant to coming up with a solution, I learned to coach members of my team. Two, when I had more context than members of my team, I created systems that allowed my team members to get that same context.

I also realized that creating a culture of ownership isn’t something a single leader can do on their own. Getting a wider business context from other leaders into the hands of your team isn’t always straightforward. Sometimes, peer influence and peer mentorship from folks that naturally take ownership of their space is the best to jumpstart others to take ownership.

 

 

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