Are You Backseat Driving Your Engineering Team?

Two local engineering leaders offer advice for managers to empower teams to own their work.
Written by Eva Roethler
August 12, 2022Updated: August 12, 2022

There are few statements that we as a people can all universally agree upon. One that comes close might just be this: backseat drivers are the worst.

Backseat drivers give confusing or inept directions. They overreact. Their anxiety and frustration are contagious and distracting. They make driving difficult and stressful. They sully the journey. 

Driving is much more enjoyable when we’re empowered to take the wheel. When we have a clear destination and mutual trust with our copilot. When our passenger keeps great company and knows when it’s actually helpful to offer guidance or alert us to hazards. We’re in charge. Those journeys are the best.

Tech companies move at high speed. Tech teams need engineers who are willing to get behind the wheel and take ownership of the project, paired with leaders who are willing to give them the keys to the Camaro — and the trust to do a good job.

When Anmol Bhasin, chief technology officer at Los Angeles-based service management software ServiceTitan, first entered leadership he made the mistake of thinking he knew better than his team when it came to solving problems. “This mentality disincentivizes your team,” he said. “They become execution machines, which takes away the element of ownership and leads them to not take responsibility for outcomes.” 

Bhasin is right, and plenty of tech leaders agree: one of the key traits of high-performing engineering teams is a culture of ownership. When engineers have an emotional stake in their work, they are more productive. The outcomes are better. Simply put, they care more. They are driving.

Handing over the keys may be trickier than it looks for engineering leaders. It requires a leap of faith. It requires professionals who have more years of experience and success to give up control. It can be scary, but it’s often worth it for the success of the company. Built In LA asked Bhasin and local engineering executive, Ashu Agte of WELL Health, for their tips for leaders who want to empower their teams to take ownership. 

 

Anmol Bhasin
Chief Technology Officer (CTO)

 

ServiceTitan is a service management software to help home services businesses generate leads and sales.

 

What does a culture of ownership mean to your team?

A culture of ownership stems from two ideas, freedom and responsibility; the freedom to cite, tackle and execute solutions to a set of problems or initiatives that support the cause and goals of an organization or the company as a whole. Freedom also entails the freedom of proposing how to solve the problem.

Responsibility is more detailed and has four broad constructs. First is the aspect of knowing what to solve and what not to solve as it pertains to priority and urgency to the organization. Second is the responsibility to propose solutions, not just cite problems. The third is getting buy-in for the approach to solve the problem with relevant stakeholders. Finally, the fourth is taking responsibility for the outcomes, whether they’re successful or not.

 

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

Spreading a culture of ownership can be difficult as some leaders naturally gravitate toward trying to solve the problem themselves. It’s vital for your team to feel like they have skin in the game to promote ownership at every level. I see team members who report directly to me as the goal-setters for the “what.” Then it’s their respective teams’ responsibility to figure out the “how” based on the established goals, and then collectively as an organization take on the responsibility of execution and outcomes in those efforts. That responsibility starts with me and is then shared more broadly. 

Leaders must trust but verify. We trust our teams to bring their best judgment and execution muscle to the table, but create a process of verification. This is a milestone or progress tracking mechanism for the execution and the outcomes of the goals that have been set. I can’t emphasize the importance of this verification method enough because without it, one cannot take responsibility for the outcomes or create a culture of accountability.

 

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

As a leader, you have to be true to yourself and acknowledge that you can’t do it all. It’s vital to build a culture where the team as a whole agrees on its goals and then builds a process where you can track if they’re being met. 

With leadership, there is no shortcut to figuring out your style. When you first become a leader you most likely can do things faster than most people on your team. That’s why you’re in that position. But you have to learn to delegate and be patient. It’s a balancing act. 

When you first become a leader you most likely can do things faster than most people on your team. But you have to learn to delegate and be patient.” 

 

I have found having mentors with leadership experience who I could reach out to and get their perspectives on very specific issues and scenarios incredibly valuable. Balancing firsthand experience with mentorship helps one find their own style of leadership.

 

 

 

WELL Health is a healthcare communication platform.

 

What does a culture of ownership mean to your team?

At WELL, I’m focused on building a diverse, empowered engineering organization. By empowered, I mean that everyone must feel like they have ownership over the decisions that are being made. They need to be able to feel free to try things without fear of failure — this is essential for innovation. 

When teams have agency, it creates pride and a sense of real ownership that promotes enthusiasm and excitement in the team. True agency is highly motivating, and motivated teams simply do better work.

True agency is highly motivating, and motivated teams simply do better work.” 

 

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

Over the course of more than 20 years in my career — which includes three startups and three exits — I’ve seen two clear behaviors that exemplify leadership and help build empowered organizations.

First, have a clear vision for how you will build an empowered team. I’ve found that it’s important for a leader to have a plan for what that means in a hyper-growth environment. This is not only helpful for building a culture of ownership and empowerment, but also for scaling your tech and team as you grow. 

Second, define a bar for excellence and hold others accountable. That includes elevating your practices and how the team gets things done, not just the technology and quality of the end product. 

In the startup world, things move and change quickly. If you’re lucky, your team may be in a hyper-growth environment for a sustained period. But that doesn’t mean your bar for excellence should change. Setting clear and consistent expectations is one of the best ways that I have found to spread empowerment across a team.

 

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

WELL is my fourth endeavor in the startup world. In my previous startups, I’ve had many challenges and opportunities in building empowered engineering organizations. When it comes to building an empowered culture, it’s not just about the technology or the team model. There are many other elements of culture that shouldn’t be overlooked such as values, behaviors and working practices. These form the glue that holds it all together. 

For example,  it’s is critical at tech companies for product management and engineering organizations to work together. It is important to create a culture where both of these organizations operate as one: creating a structure that creates a culture where engineering leaders, product managers and designers operate as a unit and collaborate to define their work. This creates the same goals for the teams and leaders, fostering trust and collaboration.

Culture is what keeps us moving forward even when our work is challenging. It’s an implied contract between all the members of a team, and when done right, great things can happen.

 

 

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