Goodbye, Micromanagement: How 7 Leaders Build Trust to Empower Ownership

Engineering leaders who encourage decision-making and risk-taking enable their team members to make a greater impact on a company’s success.

Written by Kimberly Valentine
Published on Aug. 11, 2022
Goodbye, Micromanagement: How 7 Leaders Build Trust to Empower Ownership
Brand Studio Logo

Micromanagement. 

It’s a word that’s bound to make many professionals cringe, rendering images of a working environment that lacks autonomy — where each decision is scrutinized or taken out of an employee’s hands entirely. 

But as teams grow, it becomes increasingly imperative for managers to delegate tasks and empower engineers to rely on their skill sets to drive progress.  

“Our team moves faster when we trust each other and collaborate to achieve mutual goals,” said Tom Osborne, director of core platform at Finix. “If they’re micromanaged or overruled, they lose their sense of ownership.”

“Extreme ownership,” in fact, is a principle Eightfold AI instills in its engineering team. “You own everything — the idea, the implementation, the problem, the challenge, the success and the failure,” explained Software Product and Engineering Leader Surya Vakkalanka. “This has helped us create and foster a culture of ownership across the board.”

But creating this culture — one in which employees feel confident in making decisions that may sometimes lead to failure — doesn’t happen overnight. 

“Ownership requires trust,” said James Hicks, engineering director at Doximity, “and it is up to leaders to establish and maintain that trust.” 

Built In San Francisco spoke with all three leaders, as well as others from Freedom Financial Network, Afero, and Airbyte, to learn how they’ve ditched micromanagement in favor of building trust and empowering ownership across their teams.

 

Nader Farahani
Director, Engineering • Achieve

 

What does a culture of ownership mean?

Showing accountability for all blind corners is fundamental in communicating ownership. Without ownership, you fulfill your specific part and rely on a coordinator to ensure harmony among all other pieces. 

Consider the concept of renting vs. owning a car. When you rent, you assume the owner has accounted for all aspects, and while you may sense plenty of blind corners, you rely on someone else to cover them. When you own, you don’t assume someone else has checked the tires and brakes; instead, you verify these aspects yourself. 

This example of ownership can apply to any organization. You must remain vigilant and actively pay attention to all aspects. You may rely on experts for quality, security, reliability, scalability and usability, but you will retain full ownership, which means looking at every possible blind spot.

 

How can a leader exemplify and spread a culture of ownership?

For nearly a decade, one behavior has stuck with me as most essential: picking up the trash even when there is no one around to see it. I find that those in leadership naturally embody this behavior. It is critical to clean up the trash, metaphorically, no matter where it is. An optimized and efficient environment is always advantageous — it reduces unknowns and blind spots. 

This is also a core concept of the Jidoka principle in the Kanban process, which calls for a halt to production at any stage if a defect is detected. If you see something wrong, broken or cluttering the way, fix it or raise a flag so it can be fixed. Exemplifying this behavior spreads a culture of ownership.

Working in pairs or groups frequently, having a clear product vision and understanding your customers can help teams build a shared sense of ownership.”

 

What’s most challenging about spreading a culture of ownership, and how can new leaders overcome it?

With ownership, it is critical to avoid falling into the trap of thinking you are also the doer of all things. It’s easy to feel the need to step in and carry the load. Once you do, others may assume you’ll continue indefinitely. Further, team members may assume their success is tied to exclusive ownership over an area of interest. As leaders, we want to avoid making a person the only expert and, therefore, a single point of failure. 

It can be a challenge to shift toward a shared and collective mindset around ownership. Start by maintaining close communication, prioritizing knowledge transfers and promoting teamwork around more significant efforts. Working in pairs or groups frequently, having a clear product vision and understanding your customers can help teams build a shared sense of ownership. 

 

 

Doximity team photo on a beach
Doximity

 

James Hicks
Engineering Director • Doximity

 

What does a culture of ownership mean to you and your team?

At the highest level, ownership means having autonomy to choose what to focus on and how to do it in the greater pursuit of contributing to the overall business. It means having the trust of leadership to do the right thing and holding ourselves accountable to our teammates and other teams. At Doximity, teams set their own objectives and road maps for the work they do. Leadership is here to support the team’s efforts and provide guidance, but employees are empowered to take ownership and make an impact.

Teams are encouraged and expected to take the initiative to make things better and drive innovation, including product, tooling and process improvements. More complex challenges are tackled by self-formed working groups, and we have internal competitions called co-ops where small, cross-functional teams self-organize to achieve a shared business objective.

 

How can a leader exemplify and spread a culture of ownership?

Leaders must establish trust, which can be done by being honest and transparent, using objective and measurable goals to establish accountability, and giving positive reinforcement. 

 

Hicks provided four essential actions leaders can take to establish a culture of trust and ownership:

  1. Empower the team to make decisions by communicating what success looks like so they can make decisions on how to achieve it.
  2. Embrace risk-taking and encourage the team to set stretch goals.
  3. Treat failure as a positive experience by focusing on the lessons learned.
  4. Lead with empathy and actively listen to, understand and respect each team member’s perspectives.

 

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 joined as an individual contributor, I enjoyed that sense of ownership that Doximity had already cultivated. But as I stepped into management, I struggled to give away some of that ownership to my own team. 

It took some time, direct feedback from my team and support from my mentor to truly understand the value of giving my team the same ownership I enjoyed. One of our core values at Doximity is straight talk — we say what we think, in a kind way, and every voice is heard. The team explained to me how my involvement, while well-intended, could prevent other team members from having an ownership mindset and even inhibit them from doing their best work. 

Today, I work with the team as a mentor and facilitator. I help them choose their objectives, ensure they have all the information they need to make informed decisions and challenge them to set stretch goals, which is another one of Doximity’s core values.

 

 

Tom Osborne
Director of Core Platform • Finix

 

What does a culture of ownership mean to your team?

A culture of ownership means every team member is invested in the success of our customers and the product. Everyone takes accountability for their work and seeks permanent solutions to problems rather than quick fixes. Collaboration becomes the natural way to work when a team unifies around a shared goal.

We want to improve the customer experience for the long term versus feeling like we’re just completing a task. So we prioritize measurable customer engagement — for example, Net Promoter Scores, monthly active users or revenue metrics. 

 

How can a leader foster a culture of ownership?

Everyone has personal “high scores” they care about: salary, books read, steps taken and so on. It’s easy to care about personal metrics because you profit directly from your own effort. Tracking progress is natural, and achievements are celebrated with friends. In a culture of engineering ownership, people need to live and breathe customer metrics. In interviews, I ask individuals about the “high scores” they care about from a product perspective. The quickest filter of true ownership is when a candidate tracks how customers interact with their product. 

Being proactive is fundamental to a culture of ownership, seeking out product gaps and closing them instead of waiting for complaints. Great owners try to anticipate customer needs and fix problems before customers notice. Like taking ownership of your health by counting calories, taking ownership of a product requires tracking metrics and identifying issues early.

Being proactive is fundamental to a culture of ownership, seeking out product gaps and closing them instead of waiting for complaints.”

 

What’s most challenging about spreading a culture of ownership, and how can new leaders overcome it?

A lack of trust erodes a culture of ownership. For an individual to take ownership, managers need to empower them to make decisions and act responsibly. At the same time, an individual must show consistent delivery and professional integrity to amplify trust from their peers.

It’s tempting to use ownership as an excuse to draw lines and absolve oneself from solving a problem outside of your direct control. Success requires some selflessness to maximize results. Individuals must align themselves toward a common goal that may not always match their personal goals. Therefore, as a manager, it’s vital to carve out growth opportunities, such as kickstarting projects or adding scope to the team, that add to the ownership culture and grow the individuals that make up the organization. 

 

 

Eightfold team photo in the office
Eightfold

 

Surya Vakkalanka
Software Product & Engineering Leader • Eightfold AI

 

What does a culture of ownership mean to your team?

At Eightfold, extreme ownership and transparency are core cultural traits we are proud of and value most. Every person is equipped with the right amount of visibility and trust to make decisions on their own. We are not bottle-necked by one owner or one decision-maker, which makes a huge difference as we grow and scale the company. Decisions win over indecision and actions win over inaction. Even if the decisions are not the right ones, we learn from each experience and move forward quickly. 

Decisions win over indecision and actions win over inaction. Even if the decisions are not the right ones, we learn from each experience and move forward quickly.”

 

How can a leader foster a culture of ownership?

Ownership is not something that can be forced top-down by establishing owners, roles and responsibilities. It is something that each individual should feel naturally. This happens when every person on the team is empowered to make quick decisions, good or bad, on their own. We would rather people fail fast than to not act at all and wait for someone else to decide. 

One of the best ways we encourage this is through company-wide hackathons where every employee is empowered to think differently and innovate regularly. This fosters and nurtures a culture of ownership from the grassroots level.

 

What’s most challenging about spreading a culture of ownership, and how can new leaders overcome it?

I have been fortunate to have worked at companies of various sizes with vastly differing cultures. These past experiences have taught me how to delegate, trust, enable and empower my team to own their decisions and actions. 

One of the rookie mistakes first-time managers tend to make is controlling every decision and not letting people own their actions and outcomes. If someone on your team is responsible for an action item, you need to let go in order for them to own the outcome, then learn and grow from it. You need to let them drive everything, all the way from the idea to the process to the execution to the outcome. This is how you build trust with your team and let them learn and grow as well.  

 

 

Charles Giardina
Head of Engineering  • Airbyte

 

What does a culture of ownership mean to you and your team?

Owning the outcome means that, when someone says they will handle a project, I can trust that they will make sure it gets done well. There are two important aspects to this.

First, sometimes things go wrong during a project, even if you do everything right. Proactive communication to stakeholders is crucial to ownership. We should never communicate a miss after the deadline has passed.

Second, to own the outcome you need to be humble enough to identify when you are not the best person for the job. Sometimes this only becomes obvious once you get deeper into a project. Transferring ownership, or at least getting additional support, might be the best way to ensure the project gets done well, and it enables you to work on initiatives that better leverage your expertise.

 

How can a leader exemplify and spread a culture of ownership?

Leaders have to set clear expectations. To borrow from Yogi Berra, “If you don’t know where you are going, you might wind up somewhere else.” Empower someone to own the outcome by coming to an agreement with them on exactly what it is they are trying to achieve. From there, get out of the way to give them space to think creatively.

 

What’s most challenging about spreading a culture of ownership, and how can new leaders overcome it?

For people to really take ownership, you have to build an environment in which they have the psychological safety to ask for help and fail. This idea is built into our company values: “bad news must travel faster than good news.” 

For people to really take ownership, you have to build an environment in which they have the psychological safety to ask for help and fail.”

 

To bootstrap this culture, I focus on two things:

First, I set the expectation from the start that I want people to share problems early. It is hard to go to your manager and say, “This project is going to be late.” During onboarding, I tell my reports that anytime they bring me bad news, I am going to thank them for doing so.

Second, make sure to praise people publicly whenever they do fail. Whether it is on Slack or in a blameless retrospective meeting, you have to draw attention to failures to normalize them into the culture and make the team stronger.

 

 

What does a culture of ownership mean to you and your team?

A culture of ownership starts with inspiring your team with a shared vision of the product and the company’s goals. This shared purpose allows them to make decisions on their own to meet the goals. It includes a shared responsibility for the outcome — both for the product and the team’s cohesion. Finally, it means that team members can be proud of what they create and the team that they are a part of.

A culture of ownership starts with inspiring your team with a shared vision of the product and the company’s goals.”

 

How can a leader exemplify and spread a culture of ownership?

Having empathy for each individual on the team and being able to understand their motivations, goals and growth edge enables a leader to support them properly so they can contribute as much as they can to the project and to the team. 

Leaders should instill a culture in which learning from failures is encouraged and embraced. Engineering wisdom comes from the scars of mistakes, and processes help to codify that wisdom. Leaders also need to trust in their team and its processes, and be able to admit when they’re wrong. 

 

What was your biggest challenge in spreading a culture of ownership when you first became a leader?

My biggest management challenge came after an acquisition. The incoming management did not value my team and did not see a role for them. This lack of purpose caused a great deal of distress for my team members because we had been steeped in a culture of ownership and took pride in our work. A manager can do a lot to create a culture of ownership, but to be successful, the company’s leadership team needs to promote the same vision.

 

 

Responses have been edited for length and clarity. Images via listed companies and Shutterstock.

Hiring Now
Doximity
Healthtech • Information Technology • Mobile • Productivity • Software • Analytics • Telehealth