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May 9, 2024

Cultivating an Ownership Mentality

In today's fast-paced work environment, companies increasingly seek individuals who go beyond simply completing assigned tasks.  They seek individuals who approach their work with an ownership mentality.  This mindset transcends duty; it's about feeling invested in the outcome, taking initiative, and approaching work with a sense of personal responsibility.  It's the difference between someone who sees a problem and someone who steps up to solve it.  And it's a mentality that benefits everyone.

I was once in an interview at a startup looking for employee #1 and the founder said to me: "Our company already has parents, but we're looking for that crazy uncle."

I’ve recalled that statement frequently in the years since and the expectation of ownership mentality it insinuates (I took the job and we built a great company).

Founders are a breed apart.  Focused on results, deeply engaged, and often with their financial past, present, and future on the line.  As owners, they naturally embody an ownership mentality.  Their company is their baby, and they treat it with the dedication and responsibility a parent reserves for their child.

But what about the rest of us?  The non-founders, the backbone of any thriving organization?  How do we, without the title or the literal stake in the company, cultivate that same sense of ownership?  What is the benefit to us?  How do we channel our “crazy uncle” energy to propel the organization forward?

Yes, taking ownership is necessary to drive positive change in business but it’s also a critical skill that fosters engagement, innovation, happiness, and ultimately uplifts all aspects of life, contributing towards total life success.  Let’s dive deeper into this powerful concept, exploring its benefits, how to cultivate it within yourself, and strategies for fostering it in your team.

First, Why Ownership Matters: Unveiling the Benefits

So why is ownership mentality such a prized quality?  Here are just a few reasons and they’re all win-win:

  • For the Individual
  • Enhanced Engagement and Life Satisfaction: When individuals feel a sense of ownership, they are more invested in their work, which strengthens work satisfaction and happiness.  Job satisfaction has been found to be a positive predictor of life satisfaction; happy employees tend to be happy people across the board, enjoying both strong social relationships and satisfaction with family life.
  • Improved Career Advancement:  Leaders recognize individuals who take initiative, solve problems, and pick up “undone jobs.” This can position you for promotions, new opportunities, and career advancement.  Demonstrating an ownership mentality makes you a valuable asset.
  • Lifelong Learning:  When you care about the results, you naturally want to learn new things and improve your skills. This keeps you sharp and prepared for whatever challenges or opportunities come your way down the road.
  • For the Organization
  • Improved Problem-Solving and Decision-Making: Owning projects fosters critical thinking and a proactive problem-solving approach.  Individuals become more likely to anticipate challenges and actively seek solutions, leading to faster decision-making and improved business results.
  • Increased Innovation and Creativity: Embracing ownership creates an environment where individuals feel empowered to think outside the box and explore new ideas.  They are more likely to experiment and take calculated risks, leading to innovative solutions and a competitive edge.
  • Stronger Accountability and Collaboration: With ownership comes a sense of accountability for results.  Individuals are more likely to take pride in their work and ensure high-quality outputs.  When team members display initiative and dedication, it creates a bar-raising effect that inspires their colleagues to do the same.  This fosters a collaborative environment where everyone feels empowered to contribute, leading to synergy and superior team performance.

Owning Your Outcomes: Practical Steps for Individuals

Now that we understand why ownership mentality matters, let's explore how you can cultivate this mindset in your own work:

  • Shift Your Perspective: The first step is a mental shift.  Instead of viewing tasks as simply assigned duties, reframe them as your responsibilities.  This subtle change alters your perspective.  You are the parent of them and become responsible for the entire process, not just completing individual steps.
  • Operate with Action Bias: Ownership is taken, not given.  Don't wait to be told what to do.  Anticipate challenges and proactively seek solutions.  Offer suggestions for improvement and identify areas where your skills can be applied beyond your current role.  Take initiative.  The last 1% of every project is usually the hardest because it involves an undone job awaiting someone's initiative.
  • Focus on the "Why": Understanding the purpose behind your work and its impact on the broader goals can be a powerful motivator. Ask questions, seek clarification on how your work fits into the bigger picture. It is your hands on the keyboard.  If you don’t know why you’re building what you’re building, ask why.  This helps you connect with the overall objective and will enable you to take ownership more easily.  The Five Whys is one of the most effective root-cause analysis methods.
  • Take Pride in What You Do: A deep-seated feeling of satisfaction and accomplishment should stem from your work.  We have just one, short, precious life to work with.  One chance to make a positive impact.  One chance to do something useful for others.  Ask yourself “What is the downside to doing my best work?”  Reflection upon your body of work should bring you joy later in life.  If you don’t think the way you engage is going to have that outcome, change it.

Cultivating Ownership Within Your Team: Strategies for Leaders

As a leader, fostering an ownership mentality within your team is an investment in your overall success.  Here are just a few ways to create an environment that encourages individuals to take ownership:

  • Empower Your Team: Give your team members the freedom and autonomy to make decisions within their areas of expertise. This demonstrates your trust and creates a space for them to take ownership of their work.  Avoid micromanagement at all costs.  It is the enemy of ownership.  Understand that the person closest to the problem has the highest likelihood of solving it.
  • Set Clear Goals and Expectations: Clearly define project goals in terms of outcomes achieved instead of specific deliverables.  This shows trust and creates an environment where individuals feel responsible for the outcome.  Clearly define Individual roles and ensure those role definitions (job descriptions) are publicly available as long as they’re active.  On a Scrum team, this might be a Product Owner, Scrum Master, Software Developer, and Designer.
  • Embrace the “Three C’s”: Context, Clarity, and Communication, so that your team is able to make the right decisions in the field of play without direction, therefore taking ownership.  Embracing the Three C’s ensures everyone understands the "why" behind the initiative and their specific contribution to achieving the desired outcome.
  • Psychological Safety: Create a safe space for team members to take risks, experiment, and learn from mistakes.  This allows them to take ownership without fear of failure.  As an engineer, we all take down production as a right of passage.  Nothing kills innovation and ownership mentality faster than blame cultures.  As a leader, if you are looking for who did something wrong, who broke what, or who approved a bad decision, catch yourself and redirect.
  • Offer Ownership Incentives at the Team Level: Consider implementing incentive programs that reward ownership behaviors, such as exceeding goals or proposing innovative solutions. This can further motivate individuals to take ownership.  But remember there is no “I” in TEAM.  Teams succeed and fail together so it’s important to align incentives at the team level.  Team level incentives create an environment where ownership-taking individuals focus on team success.

In conclusion, cultivating an ownership mentality is a win-win proposition for both individuals and organizations.  It empowers individuals to take initiative, solve problems creatively, and feel a deep sense of satisfaction from their work.  Leaders who foster this mindset create a thriving environment where team members are engaged, motivated, and driven to achieve their full potential.  Remember, ownership isn't about working harder; it's about working smarter with passion and purpose.  So, unleash your inner "crazy uncle," embrace the challenges, and take ownership of your work.

Headshot of Saatva's Chief Technology and Digital Officer, Evan Huston, from the Saatva Boston Viewing Room Opening Event

- Evan Huston, Chief Technology and Digital Officer, Saatva

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