Want a Culture of Ownership? Share the ‘Why’ not the ‘How’

Trust, communication and autonomy are key ingredients to growing collective responsibility among engineering teams at these 10 Boston companies.
Written by Olivia Arnold
August 11, 2022Updated: August 11, 2022

Before assigning engineers to lead projects, Rachel Black takes the time to really get to know her team members. She asks herself: What are their career aspirations? What are their likes and dislikes? What are their strengths?

Later, she uses this information to help place people on initiatives that they ultimately take ownership of. This is an important step in the trust-building process, she says, because team members sometimes do not recognize the expertise they bring to the table, and won’t step up to own projects as a result. It also shows engineers that their manager sees and values their contributions. 

Furthermore, “It often has a snowball effect of building confidence in their expertise, then team members become more willing and able to identify and take on larger tasks on their own,” said Black, who is the head of security engineering at Benchling.

“Get to know your teams” and “build trust” were common advice given by 10 Boston leaders implementing a culture of ownership in their engineering departments. At companies with a strong sense of collective responsibility, engineers provide input on project stages from inception and design through customer support. 

Managers at these 10 featured companies are intentional about sharing the “why” behind their projects — why the product is important and what essential purposes it serves for the clients — without requiring set solutions for “how” to approach the issues. Leaders encourage their engineering teams to take calculated risks to develop the best solutions possible for customers.

When there are setbacks or mistakes, engineers and managers at these companies don’t assign blame. Instead, they come together across departments to work on solving the problem and preventing it from happening in the future. 

“When we commit to something, it means we succeed and fail as a team,” said Bennett Wilson, director of mechanical engineering at Markforged

Built In Boston sat down with leaders from Liberty Mutual, InterSystems, Benchling, Markforged and six other companies to discuss how they are growing collective responsibility and accountability on their engineering teams — and why it benefits their companies and customers in the long run. 

 

 

Managers at insurance provider Liberty Mutual understand that promoting a culture of ownership begins with knowing their team and making sure their voices are heard. When Cybersecurity Manager Kenny Mazige realized some team members were unintentionally dominating group discussions, he encouraged more vocal people to take a step back and urged quieter people to speak up. 

 

What does a culture of ownership mean to your team?

For our team, this means being empowered to make decisions that affect our work on a daily basis. We give our engineers the space and autonomy to solve problems without suggesting or leading them down a path as to how they should implement a solution. We trust engineers to work collaboratively and make the best decision for the collective team. This autonomy breeds the confidence needed to take action and it results in a sense of pride in the solutions, as they are truly outcomes created and owned by the team.

Autonomy breeds the confidence needed to take action and it results in a sense of pride in the solutions.

 

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

As leaders, we have to put people first and can show that in our actions by fostering an inclusive and collaborative environment. How? Talk to your team consistently and approach them with curiosity. 

As leaders, we need to ask, “Who am I working with?” “What drives and motivates them?” “What makes them, them?” Then comes the important part — we need to listen and get to know them as people. Their job titles do not define them, and when we recognize employees for the individuals they are, we can understand their needs and respond accordingly. This will lead to employees feeling more comfortable in making their voices heard, and consequently the work will follow. 

 

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

The biggest challenge is ensuring that all voices are heard. On our team, we have people who are naturally more vocal, and I quickly recognized it was easy for those voices to unintentionally drown out the others. The first step to combat this was the creation of a collaborative environment where all voices are welcome. The second step required focused engagement with each team member to discuss what they can do as individuals. 

For those who are more vocal, I asked them to look for opportunities to step back in conversations and actively try to engage their peers. For those who are less vocal, I asked them to look for opportunities to step up and engage when offered the opportunity. My role is to observe and ensure that all voices are heard, steering the conversation as needed. Once we got to the point where all voices were being heard, we achieved a culture of ownership within the entire team.

This takes time. Building trust, creating environments that encourage collaboration and implementing proposed solutions are not things that are achieved quickly. It took collaboration with my manager and other leaders to get to a solution that worked. We learned and evolved from the attempted solutions that did not work, and we continue to do so today.

 

 

Outside of InterSystems office building
InterSystems

 

Steve Glassman
Director of Quality Development

 

At InterSystems, a data-management software provider for healthcare, governments and businesses, leaders view ownership as a more active version of “see something, say something.” In other words, managers expect their team members to ask challenging questions in order to best serve the customers’ interests. To sustain a culture of ownership, Director of Quality Development Steve Glassman looks for teachable moments to point out to his team, such as when questions are avoided or not fully answered. 

 

What does a culture of ownership mean to your team?

Ownership means we have a responsibility to look and then act. It’s like the phrase “see something, say something,” but takes a more active role.

When we’re doing this, we try to take in everything that our department does and ask ourselves why we’re doing it. Should we be doing it? Are we doing enough of it? Should we be doing something else in addition or instead?  

We have a lot of people who ask challenging questions about ourselves, the product, the code, the tools, the environment — everything. We ask ourselves these questions because everything that we do will eventually impact the customer, either positively or negatively, so we need to be the voice of and for the customer.

InterSystems encourages people to learn from their mistakes, not suffer because of them.

 

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 teach and then demonstrate. That starts with looking out for teachable moments.

Say you’re in a meeting, and you pause and say, “Did anybody catch that? There was a question and the answer to it didn’t match. Let’s dig down.” We’re looking for people who don’t let confusion or a half-answered question end the discussion. That requires leaders who have been around the block enough to see when somebody doesn’t want to answer a question, perhaps because they come from a company with a culture of blame.

InterSystems has a culture of ownership, which is so much more affirming because it enables somebody to step in and help solve important problems.

When I came to InterSystems, I found a company where you could knock on somebody’s door, ask for a few minutes to discuss a challenge and hear, “Yes, how can I help?” Everybody is open to finding solutions and solving problems. InterSystems encourages people to learn from their mistakes, not suffer because of them.

Leaders ask questions like: Are we doing something we shouldn’t? Are we missing something? Who should be driving this? Leaders have open eyes, and they advise. That calls for open communication.

 

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

A few years after I started at InterSystems, we started to grow and take on greater challenges. When that happened, previous workflows and habits didn’t work as well as they had before, and we needed a different approach.

One of those new approaches was to lean on the culture of ownership. With new people and people in new roles, we had to teach them what InterSystems is and how we work. It took time, nurturing and repetition. As a leader, you not only have to give people permission to take ownership, you have to actively encourage them. As a manager, you have to give people the time to be involved.

One of the ways that I show my managers that they are in charge is when they come to me with a problem. Instead of giving them a solution, I ask what they plan to do. I encourage them to present their solution. If they don’t have one, I’ll ask them to see if they can come up with one on the spot. They see that it’s a safe environment, and over the course of the conversation, they’ve never failed to come up with something workable.

 

 

Black and white photo of blurred Benchling team members in the office with a view of the city out the window
Benchling

 

Rachel Black
Head of Security Engineering

 

At Benchling, a research and development cloud services provider for biotechnology companies, leaders know that building a strong culture of ownership requires trust among team members. The company encourages team members, regardless of their role in the company, to provide input in ways big and small — from the team roadmap to multi-quarter initiatives to regular group discussions.  

 

What does a culture of ownership mean to your team?

For our team, a culture of ownership means that each member on the team, regardless of seniority, has a say in helping to shape the initiatives we are working on and the overall direction of our security program. This is represented in many different ways — from team members participating in and contributing to the team roadmap, to designing and executing on multi-quarter initiatives, to simply having the space to provide input during team discussions. 

As a fast-growing organization, giving all team members the space and opportunity to own different aspects of the work we do is vital to helping us grow quickly. It is also a key element of career development at Benchling. 

In fact, ownership is one of the main axes within our career matrix. This further emphasizes the expectations we have on our management team to support a culture of ownership and to ensure that team members are given the ability to own and drive forward key initiatives.

Giving all team members the space and opportunity to own different aspects of the work we do is vital to helping us grow quickly.

 

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

As a leader, one of the things that is important to realize is that you are not an expert in everything, and that’s OK! Your role is to help grow and develop the expertise of the individuals on your team. 

When you do not give your team the space to deliver and sometimes even fail, you’re actually doing them a disservice. Often, for those looking to start building a culture of ownership within their organization, the place to start is with the leaders themselves. Leaders need to let go of their egos and provide safe spaces for their teams to provide input.

 

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

One of the challenges toward building a culture of ownership, especially as a new leader in an organization, is to build trust with the team. There is a foundational layer of trust that has to be built first so team members recognize that their contributions matter and are valued. In some cases, team members need to first recognize the expertise that they bring to the table. Without a support structure in place, it can often feel like we’re throwing people off a cliff and telling them “figure it out, good luck” — which isn’t a recipe for success. 

For me, what works well is spending time really understanding the individuals on the team: What are their career aspirations? What do they like to do? What do they not like to do? What are their perceived (or actual) strengths and opportunities? Then, I use this as input to help line them up for initiatives that they are able to drive forward on their own. By starting here, it often has a snowball effect of building confidence in their expertise, then team members are more willing and able to identify and take on larger tasks on their own.

 

 

John Behmer
Engineering Manager

 

Online catering marketplace ezCater follows a “culture recipe,” with one of the key ingredients being “own it, figure it out.” For their engineering teams, this means they are clear on the software systems they are responsible for, empowered to implement solutions they think are best and are accountable for their results. 

For leaders hoping to implement a culture of ownership, Engineering Manager John Behmer emphasizes the importance of delegation, fostering creativity, clear communication and coaching engineers to find their own solutions. 

 

What does a culture of ownership mean to your team?

It probably goes without saying, but defining clear ownership boundaries across teams is foundational to a culture of ownership. For my team, that means everyone needs to know which software systems they are responsible for maintaining.

Once ownership boundaries are clear, it really comes down to two things: empowerment and accountability. It is our job as leaders to foster a healthy relationship between the two, and to set clear and reasonable expectations for our teams.

At ezCater, we have a “culture recipe,” a set of values by which we all operate. One of the ingredients is “own it, figure it out.” Individuals are given the right balance of autonomy and support that they need to be successful, while at the same time being held accountable for results. This leads to a strong sense of ownership at both the team and individual levels.

Individuals are given the right balance of autonomy and support that they need to be successful, while at the same time being held accountable for results.

 

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

One essential behavior is delegation. Delegating tasks is a great way to grow engineers and spread a culture of ownership throughout an engineering team. For example, when kicking off a new project, teams at ezCater often identify a project lead who is responsible for scoping the work and leading the project through the full software development lifecycle. Another example I’ve seen is delegating the responsibility of leading standups to individual engineers.

Another essential behavior is fostering creativity. A lot of engineers at ezCater are passionate about our product and have great ideas for how to make it better. We value and encourage this input.

You need communication. It’s important to establish clear and reasonable expectations so that teams can hold themselves accountable for their work and know what’s expected of them. Transparent and proactive communication is another key aspect to ensuring success here.  

Finally, coach engineers to find solutions. For example, when somebody comes to me with a problem that seems out of reach, I often ask, “If you were a senior leader at ezCater, how would you solve that problem?” This fosters a sense of ownership, empowerment and shared accountability for finding a solution.

 

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

When I first transitioned from individual contributor to manager, it became apparent that I knew way too much about the product I had supported for years but hadn’t yet passed that along to my team. In order for my team to be successful, they needed me to share that knowledge and empower individuals to lead without my support. This took time, but I found that training, documentation and delegating leadership tasks allowed me to slowly step away while building a stronger culture of ownership across the team.

 

 

Bennett Wilson
Director, Mechanical Engineering

 

Mechanical Engineering Director Bennett Wilson says ownership is part of the engineering organization’s DNA at Markforged, a 3D printing company. Wilson saw collective responsibility in action when the company was developing its metal printer, the Metal X, and encountered a defect. 

Instead of assigning blame for the issue, a group of leaders from the software, electrical, materials and mechanical departments came together to discuss the problem and developed individual hypotheses for what might be causing the defect within their domains. With every department stepping up to take accountability for the issue, the cross-functional team was able to implement changes that ultimately resolved the defect and made the product better.

 

What does a culture of ownership mean to your team?

At Markforged, ownership is a core value and key ingredient in establishing trust within the team and overall success for the organization. When I think about my team in the context of ownership, it extends beyond my direct reports or even the cross-functional group of engineers working on the FX20, our latest printer for which I was the technical lead. Ownership is a part of the DNA of our entire engineering organization. 

What does that look like in practice? One example I often refer to is when we were developing the Metal X, Markforged’s metal 3D printer, and investigating a specific print defect. We came together as a group of cross-functional leads — software, electrical, materials and mechanical — to discuss the issue. We brought up hypotheses within our individual areas as to what could be leading to this defect. Each one of us left that meeting owning the issue, assuming it was a problem in our domain, with a plan to test those hypotheses. 

As is often the case with new technology, there was no single problem or solution, and we made several incremental improvements to address the defect. If, as individual engineers, we let ego get in the way, we never would have arrived at a proper solution. Instead, everyone owned the problem and kept their eyes on the goal of delivering the best possible product.

We are a group of engineers developing technology for people like us — other engineers. It’s critically important that we all have a sense of ownership over the product. This gets mechanical engineers to reproduce and report software bugs, electrical engineers to dig into mechanical issues in a motion system and software engineers to build out new utilities to make manufacturing and testing our products more reliable.

People are much more likely to step up and own things in an environment where it’s safe to make mistakes.

 

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

A few essential behaviors are required for building a successful culture of ownership.  One of the best ways leaders help infuse these into the culture is by modeling them as frequently as possible. First is admitting when you’re wrong or have made a mistake. Earlier in my career, when I made a mistake, I’d try to fix it before anyone could find out. In reality, everyone makes mistakes, and it’s important to own them and socialize them when they occur. The point isn’t to dwell on the mistake; it’s to acknowledge it, figure out how to move forward, accomplish the task at hand and devise a plan to avoid it in the future. This not only builds trust between you and your teams, but becomes a teachable moment because people are much more likely to step up and own things in an environment where it’s safe to make mistakes. 

In a culture of ownership, the team trusts each other to do what they say they are going to do. When someone commits to something, it doesn’t mean that individual will do 100 percent of the work themselves. Asking for help is expected and encouraged. As engineers, it’s impossible to know everything. It’s perfectly fine to say, “I don’t know, but this is who we’ll talk to and this is how we’ll find out.”

When we commit to something, it means we succeed and fail as a team. There’s no such thing as a task too small. Markforged has felt many of the same supply chain pains that the rest of the world has over the past two years. We’ve experienced the same bottlenecks on the manufacturing and supply side of things. I’ve seen product managers, vice presidents and software engineers — to name a few — turn wrenches, help build cables and otherwise assist in alleviating these pinch points. 

When a team has a culture of ownership, leadership needs to be just as willing, if not more willing, to roll up their sleeves and get their hands dirty wherever it’s needed.

 

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

At Markforged, I’m lucky enough to be surrounded by a group of passionate engineers who love what they do and the products we work on. This contributes to a culture of ownership organically, and it made the transition into management quite smooth for me. 

However, there were still some challenges. I once read that a key skill a senior engineer or engineering manager needs is the ability to clearly define everything they can do and everything they should do. When you’re modeling ownership as a leader, it doesn’t mean you’re doing everything. Most of the time, leaders need to delegate and enable others to take ownership themselves. 

 

 

Rob Brooks
VP, Engineering

 

At MineralTree, a fintech company that automates businesses’ accounts payable processes, leaders encourage taking calculated risks and know that mistakes are part of team growth. When Vice President of Engineering Rob Brooks first became a manager, he learned that it was important to relinquish some power to his team by sharing project knowledge and context. As a result of doing this, his team was able to better appreciate the scope of their projects and feel more invested in their outcomes. 

 

What does a culture of ownership mean to your team?

At Mineraltree, it’s about accepting accountability as an individual and holding your teammates to that same standard. It’s about our leadership empowering teams and arming them with the information they require to make informed decisions. It’s about fostering a culture of exploration and continuous learning so that our teams have the necessary skills to be active participants in the decision-making process.

We try to help teams understand the bigger picture or the “why”— why our customers engage us, why a particular feature is important, etc. Ultimately, a culture of ownership fosters trust and trust strengthens the culture, contributing to happier and more engaged teams, which is to the betterment of all.

For teams to grow rapidly, leadership must foster an environment that encourages taking calculated risks.

 

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

In order to create a culture of ownership within engineering, the leadership team must first lead by example. We must be consistent in our approach, making sure teams have clarity of purpose and understand how their efforts contribute to MineralTree’s success.  We cannot micromanage. We must allow the engineering teams to decide how they will solve a problem.  

For teams to grow rapidly, leadership must foster an environment that encourages taking calculated risks. Without risks, there can be no growth. Teams must know it’s OK to make mistakes and that they will be allowed to learn from those experiences to avoid them in the future.  

If we can balance all of the above, ownership and accountability becomes ingrained in the engineering culture and teams will expect and enforce them without even recognizing it.

 

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

Early on in your career, when you first become a manager, you’re often taught that  knowledge is power. In the past, I may have hoarded that knowledge and guided teams toward desired outcomes without necessarily giving up that information. Letting go of some control and leaning on the talent that surrounds you can be hard.

I overcame this destructive behavior when I recognized that my actions, though well-intentioned, were impeding our pace of growth. I started feeding more context and details directly to the team. This provided them a better appreciation for what we were attempting to accomplish, and ultimately allowed them to make better, informed decisions. The result was a happier, higher performing team that now felt they had a shared ownership for our outcomes.

 

 

Jessica Sahagian
Director of Engineering

 

At connectRN, a digital platform that connects healthcare workers with open shifts at local hospitals, engineers work closely with product teams to ensure they are involved in the innovation and design process from beginning to end. Rather than focusing solely on project completion, Director of Engineering Jessica Sahagian encourages her team to admit when they face obstacles so they can get help from a colleague and deliver the best end product in a timely manner.

 

What does a culture of ownership mean to your team?

A culture of ownership means that we never say “that’s not my problem.” If an issue affects one of us or one of our clinicians, it’s our issue, and we will swarm to troubleshoot as a team for the good of all.

We also believe in healthy, holistic product innovation, which involves having engineers involved in business strategy early and often. Our product team spearheads confidence testing with our engineers to give them a full understanding of and influence over proposed solutions to user problems. Having a tight partnership between product and engineering gives developers a sense of ownership in the innovation and design process from the outset. Importantly, we do this outside of meetings and design our processes to be sensitive to the time engineers have available for these activities, while making sure they can express their ideas and inputs to the fullest.

With deeper insights into the “why” and “what”, engineers feel ownership for delivering the best “how” for our users.

With deeper insights into the ‘why’ and ‘what’, engineers feel ownership for delivering the best ‘how’ for our users.

 

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

You need to walk the walk and demonstrate the ownership behaviors you wish to see in your team. As leaders, we are often tasked with looking at things through a 30,000-foot lens, but that doesn’t mean complete removal from the day to day. If engineers see a leader jumping in and helping solve a problem, chances are they will follow suit. We also need to demonstrate excitement in owning challenges and charge our teams with recognizing the growth potential and impacts of owning outcomes together.

There also needs to be consistent messaging around expectation of ownership. Ownership isn’t necessarily “I finished this task, I win!” It’s more, “I tried to finish this task, hit a bump and raised a blocker immediately so that I could get help from a more experienced person in order to get this task to the end user when we promised.”

Ownership doesn’t mean taking credit or assigning blame. It means that each individual is responsible for the outcomes of the whole team. As a leader, I will own the missteps, but I will never take credit for the successes. The wins are theirs, the errors are mine.

 

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

The average tenure on my current team is two and a half months! While I feel that everyone on the team is intrinsically motivated, we have all recently come to connectRN from other companies with varying cultures around ownership. The biggest challenge in creating any culture shift is when folks are used to another way of working. If you come from a world where speaking up and stepping outside of your box is met with indifference or annoyance, it’ll likely be tough to adjust to a more collaborative approach.

As a team is growing quickly (as ours did, and is!), you have to recognize where you can be flexible on how things are currently done and where to stand firm. Culture is a place where my colleagues and I stand very firm, and ownership is a large part of that. It’s challenging to have a mostly new team, especially in engineering where the time to productivity varies depending on the complexity of the codebase. Often, it’s uncomfortable and even impossible to own anything from the outset if you are in the weeds of learning an entirely new tech stack. That’s why it starts with attitude. 

 

 

Timothy Hawkes
Senior Vice President, Engineering

 

At Vestmark, a fintech company that provides portfolio management and trading solutions, leaders seek broad feedback from the team while still assigning a point person to oversee the project and own its outcomes. Senior Vice President of Engineering Timothy Hawkes advises managers looking to implement a culture of ownership to focus on clear, honest communication and priority setting skills. 

 

What does a culture of ownership mean to your team?

I was taught early in my career if everyone owns everything, nobody owns anything. A culture of ownership is critical to a highly performing technology organization. You always want to seek broad audiences for feedback, but at the end of the day, someone needs to take end-to-end ownership and be the outcome owner. This doesn’t need to be the most senior person in the organization, but rather someone who can execute and has been given clear authority for delivery. Management needs to be very clear on who that is and socialize that within the organization. 

Another important activity to help encourage ownership is demonstrating where that feature, function or component lives in the technology ecosystem and how end users interact with the product. For example, someone may own a rebalancing engine but never sees how it’s actually used by an end user. Demonstrating how the product is used and putting context around it helps someone better understand the importance of and  need to have an owner.

This is technology. Issues arise, and that’s OK; how you react to them is key.

 

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

Essential behaviors are clear, honest, transparent communication and priority setting skills. In technology, there is a tendency to always be juggling ten “top” priorities at a time. Technology leaders need to be clear with their teams on what the priorities are and clearly explain when they change. People need to raise risks early; there should be no surprises. 

The most important behavior I look for is the ability to manage expectations internally and externally. Over-communicate to ensure everyone, including your stakeholders, are on the same page and in agreement. This is technology. Issues arise, and that’s OK; how you react to them is key.

 

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

People tend to get emotionally attached to projects; it’s human nature. Business environments and opportunities change rapidly, and people need to be nimble. Understanding that there are times when a project needs to be put on the shelf in order to focus on new priorities is key. People need to be able to adjust and course correct.  

Another challenge is legacy organizational structures and complacency. People sometimes fall into the silo trap. Silos form over time and instead of collaborating, it’s sometimes easier for people to fall back to the “we’ve always done things a certain way” mindset. Breaking down those silos is critical to success. 

Lastly, challenge groupthink. You need to encourage collaboration and create a culture where people feel comfortable expressing different opinions. I always have my teams watch the Abilene Paradox video (which can be found onYouTube). It’s a great example of speaking up in a group setting.

 

 

John “Geech” McGeachie
VP Engineering, Platform GM

 

Leaders at the startup incubator Cogo Labs “target backward” — meaning they plan beginning with the end state solution in mind. As part of this process, team members are empowered to own any part of the solution, as long as it helps deliver the service to the client as efficiently as possible. To help future hires integrate into their culture, team members wrote out their guidelines for being a successful Cogo Labs engineer in the company’s handbook. 

 

What does a culture of ownership mean to your team?

Instead of focusing on whether a particular task is in scope for their job or skill set, we focus on what the end state solution is that we are trying to get to. Companywide, we refer to this as “target backward” — once you know what “done” looks like from the perspective of your customer, you can focus on the straight line path to getting there. This means any team member has autonomy and agency to flex into whatever they need to in order to drive as fast as possible to the solution for our customer. 

Owning the outcome for customers is really the only thing that matters to them — has my problem or need been solved in a way that leaves me satisfied with the solution and interactions along the way? That drives real value for the customer and also real development for the team.

Building a relationship creates the opportunity to generate superlative outcomes every time.

 

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

It’s taking the extra one, five or 10 steps to drive a problem to resolution instead of leaving that last little bit for someone else to mop up or finish. It’s the follow through afterward — are we interacting actively and transparently with our customer to achieve the best result possible? That’s only possible if we do a warm handoff of the solution with our customer versus throwing something over the wall. 

Too often, there can be lingering issues or a less than 100 percent satisfactory resolution for the customer, but the activation energy to get it all the way done is too high for them. They have other priorities and need to move on. Building a relationship creates the opportunity to generate superlative outcomes every time. That builds trust and, ultimately, real value in the customer base because they are succeeding using your product, your work and your effort. I look for and constantly work on coaching and demonstrating that level of follow through in everything we do.

 

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

Often, people will have worked in another environment that encouraged a  cover-your-ass approach. Maybe they did not put themselves out there with the customer to really understand what’s happening or they lack experience. People, especially engineers who are used to some segment of their customer base not understanding them, will by default stay inbounds with their work: write to spec, test to spec, log completion and move on. 

Actively guiding technical staff of all flavors on how to productively get more engaged with our audience, the customer, requires a lot of time, especially to do it at scale. The answer here is to live it, breathe it and talk about it all the time with people in different settings and contexts so they can internalize it. Write about it in internal documents so new staff have a useful starting point. We have an engineering handbook at Cogo and it’s not only about our git and SSH configs; it talks about how to succeed as an engineer at Cogo, and that scales really well and helps people integrate quickly into our culture.

 

 

Glass wall in the Hi Marley office with the company logo on it
Hi Marley

 

Gene Tetreault
SVP, Engineering

 

At Hi Marley, a digital communications platform for the insurance industry, leaders adhere to the company’s three core values: be humble, max courage and Ubuntu, a South African principle often interpreted as meaning people are connected through shared humanity. Senior Vice President of Engineering Gene Tetreault says the value of Ubuntu is evident across Hi Marley’s engineering teams because there is a collective responsibility for the success of all projects. 

 

What does a culture of ownership mean to your team?

Everybody approaches problems differently, so you must remove hierarchy and focus on ideas for any team to be highly functional. Our team believes that if we allow a broader group of people to solve problems, we will come up with better, more creative answers than if we only had one person responsible for finding the solution. We brought our team members to Hi Marley because they’re talented and have unique perspectives. We benefit when we allow everyone to take on new challenges, have ownership, make decisions and follow through on them.

As Hi Marley grew, we built individual teams within engineering that have the autonomy to drive value for our customers and do it in a way that’s not top down. Each team has the power to listen to the customers’ problems and decide which issues to prioritize, how they will solve them, what technology they will use and how they will deliver that solution. With autonomy and ownership, these small teams make better decisions on how to approach something because they work in those swimlanes daily. They have a deeper understanding of the opportunities as well as the complexities and nuances of specific issues.

We benefit when we allow everyone to take on new challenges, have ownership, make decisions and follow through on them.

 

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

I strive to exemplify Hi Marley’s three core values: be humble, max courage (dream big and take measured risks) and Ubuntu (true success is being part of a purpose bigger than any individual or company). 

As a leader, it’s important to also serve as a mentor and give your team members the space to take on new challenges. Empowering and trusting my team to try new ideas allows them to grow. Of course, leaders can offer direction, but you want your engineers to feel that their input and contributions are valued and that you recognize and appreciate their hard work. 

Ubuntu is also pervasive across the engineering team. There isn’t one individual responsible for doing everything; everybody is responsible for doing everything, which builds a strong sense of trust and satisfaction. When something gets done, people feel like they contributed to it and are responsible for part of the success and ownership. 

Ultimately, these values create a strong desire to do more and do the best job possible because our engineers take pride in their work, feel camaraderie and work together to achieve common goals. Those things together result in a good working environment and excellent company culture.

 

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

Hi Marley is a small company impacting a massive industry. As a leader, the biggest challenge was ensuring we did not dilute the culture of ownership as we scaled. We’ve proven that a communication platform in insurance is valuable and expanded the product to other major pillars of functionality, run by individual engineering teams. With this structure, more people have opportunities to lead, learn from each other, take on new responsibilities and grow in their careers.

Hi Marley engineers get endless opportunities to take ownership, lead and gain valuable experience, which is rare for a small company. For example, one of our engineers came to Hi Marley fresh out of college. Organically, she got the opportunity to be part of our intelligence team, which was a huge stretch for both her technical and leadership skills. By putting her in that situation, we gave her the space to grow. Now, she’s more skilled as an individual contributor and grew as a leader. She’s on a more incredible career path in informatics and data intelligence than she never imagined. Empowering her to take that opportunity has benefitted her career and team, and magnified the collective output for our customers.

 

 

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