People are the most valuable part of any organization. The most coveted employees in all industries are “owners” who go above and beyond what’s expected because they take pride in their work, and they’re empowered to do their best.

“Ownership mentality” is not a new idea. Many people have discussed ways to foster this culture within an organization.

If your startup is challenging an established industry, hiring owners is a critical consideration. While equity can represent the financial reward for taking a risk and joining your venture, owners truly crave the responsibilities and autonomy of building something from scratch.

Here are some of the lessons we’ve learned at Gusto about how to cultivate “ownership mentality.”

Hire people who’ll be their own best boss

There are two easy ways to tell if job candidates are owners.

1. Listen carefully to how they describe their experiences

Did they merely list all the responsibilities in their previous job descriptions, or did they talk about driving projects from beginning to end and learning from each of them? You’re looking for people who have shown that they push things forward, not people you’ll have to keep on track.

2. Find out if they are genuinely passionate about your company’s mission

At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter how intelligent or capable people are if they don’t care about the problem you’re trying to solve. If candidates can’t articulate why your mission resonates with them, you’re not speaking with future owners of your company.

Create opportunities and then let go

The traditional “buck stops here” model of leadership tends to make everyone “pass the buck” because only those at the top are responsible, and therefore fewer people feel invested. Opening opportunities for everyone to own projects encourages success (or failure) on their own merits. Having an unlimited vacation policy is one way to demonstrate that you trust your people to decide what’s best for both themselves and the company.

Share information freely

It’s become fashionable for companies to use “transparency” as a metaphor for candor with the outside world. I’ve found being as frank as possible internally sets people up for success.

During our monthly all-hands meetings called “State of Z,” we share extremely detailed information about the company’s growth, finances, and future plans. Though these numbers are typically kept much closer to the chest, opening access to dashboards and shared reports allows everyone to be true owners. Our marketing team can pursue the right campaigns, our engineers can decide whether to license software or build it themselves — everyone wins.

Encourage collaboration in setting company policies

When it comes to vacation time, work equipment, benefits and other company-wide policies, we solicit input from the team in advance and stay open to conversations about changing them.

We also strongly believe benefits shouldn’t be random. As a significant part of everyone’s compensation, benefits should reflect the team’s values. For example, commuting is painful and in San Francisco, rent prices can make it impractical, if not impossible, to reside nearby. That’s why we offer a monthly stipend for people who live close to the office.

Taking part in the details can be fun, too. We moved to a new office recently, and a couple teammates helped choose new colors for the walls! We affectionately named some conference rooms after the paint names: Sea Breeze, Snapdragon and Full Sun.

A word about scaling

Some might point out that this mindset doesn’t scale as a team grows and “process” is inevitable. I believe it does scale as long as you (1) hire people who yearn to be owners and (2) make sure each person leads by example, starting with yourself as a founder.

The foundation of Gusto is built upon great communication between teams, and shared passion for the problem we’re solving. This company culture enabled us to move quickly and accomplish as much as companies that are far larger than ours. More importantly, by fostering autonomy and accountability, everyone does better work and is happier in the workplace.

Joshua Reeves Josh is the CEO and co-founder of Gusto, a startup that’s reimagining HR, payroll, and benefits for modern companies. Josh believes in the power of software to solve complex problems. Follow Josh on LinkedIn and Twitter.
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