Many promising new ventures struggle to get off the ground because their founders fail to cultivate a sense of collective ownership — a feeling that the venture idea is “ours,” and not just the founder’s — in their teams. When teams feel ownership of an idea, they are more collaborative, they take more risks, and they make more personal sacrifices to support the shared goal — and when there’s a lack of ownership, team members quickly become demotivated and unproductive. So what can founders do to foster that all-important sense of collective ownership?
To explore this question, we conducted a series of studies with more than 500 startup founders and team members from both entrepreneurship competitions and university startup launch courses. We collected extensive quantitative data to measure the performance of these companies, including surveys and investor evaluations, and also conducted qualitative interviews with founders and their team members. Based on our research, we discovered that founders tend to adopt one of three styles — and which style they choose can have a major impact on their success:
The first type of founder actively seeks input from their team not just on questions of execution, but on their entire venture idea. For instance, one founder we interviewed, Sam*, was the head of a medical device startup focused on developing a surgical tool for kidney transplants. Rather than just having his teammates implement his idea, he frequently asked them to consider how the tool he had already developed could be redesigned. In response, one person suggested a design change to make the tool adaptable for other surgical procedures, which expanded both the company’s potential market and its social impact. As one member of Sam’s team put it, “Even though he has been working on this for two years, he is not coming in with an attitude of, you know, ‘This is my idea, so you are just going to work on it.’ He still wants all of our input, which is really nice.”
Proactively engaging your team on shaping the core idea is an effective way to build ownership — but only to a point. In our interviews, we found that if a founder encouraged too much feedback, the team was liable to lose focus and motivation. For example, Hallie, the founder of a concert-planning startup, asked her team members to pursue any and all changes to her idea, no matter now far afield of her original plan. Her team suggested a number of useful avenues, such as dynamic ticket pricing and a customer rewards program. But as the team explored all these different directions, Hallie found herself becoming less attached to the venture. As she told us, “The original idea was my baby, and then it really morphed into a new direction. After the change, I became less invested in the idea — and it showed.”
In addition, these founders often fail to set clear boundaries around what is and isn’t up for debate, creating conflict when team members suggest ideas that the founders don’t like. For example, one team member recalled how her founder claimed to be totally open-minded, but in fact struggled to accept certain new ideas: “You could see she had kind of a shock factor and she was trying to defend it. She was holding onto her idea. After that, it just wasn’t worth it to any of us to shake it up any more or put in the effort. There was just an uneasiness that never really went away.” The team ended up disbanding before it had even finished its prototype.
Getting your team involved by delegating important decisions is a great way to cultivate a sense of ownership — but without clear boundaries, you risk losing both your own interest in the venture and the support of your team.
The second type of founder is much more territorial about their ideas. In some cases, this approach can boost collective ownership, as clear direction can reduce ambiguity, minimize potential conflict, and ensure people are focused on the same goals. As one team member reflected when discussing her experience with a dictatorial founder, “She shared with us her personal connection to the idea. After that we knew where she wanted to go with it, so we really didn’t try and change it. It helped us understand the strategy and where the product fit in. Having something tangible helped everyone get excited about it.” A passionate, dictatorial leadership style can in some cases increase collective ownership, because clarity around who is in control can help things run more smoothly.
Of course, this style also limits opportunities for new team members to influence the direction of the company, making it difficult to stay engaged and invested. For example, in one founder’s initial exchanges with his team, he made it clear that his idea was fixed and not open to any design changes. As a result, his team wasn’t able to share their unique perspectives, which they found extremely demotivating. As one team member recounted, “When I joined the team, I was really excited about it. But now it seems like he doesn’t really want me to contribute that much. We’ve been more like advisors than team members, kind of stuck in the backseat.” A dictatorial approach can reduce conflict and ambiguity around direction, but the lack of opportunities for engagement can alienate your team and erode their sense of collective ownership.
The final type of founder we observed struck a delicate balance between the two approaches described above. These flexible founders clearly designated which parts of their original idea were “off limits,” and which parts were open for discussion. As one team member described, “He told us there were two core things [about the venture idea] he was not willing to give up, and that those core elements would remain in place. But he also said that [for] other things, like the target market, he wanted input from the team.”
This blended approach captures the benefits of the other two styles while minimizing their downsides. By asking for help in some areas and articulating clear boundaries in others, these founders are able to bolster engagement while keeping their teams from taking the venture in an unwanted direction. For example, Alex worked for a founder who had specified that he wasn’t looking for new feature ideas, but he was very interested in exploring new markets or other business-side changes: “We knew the core technology was ready,” Alex explained, “and that our efforts would be spent on developing the business model for that technology.”
Part of what makes this mixed approach so effective is that it’s not just about designating what’s not up for debate — it’s about explicitly stating where founders would like their team members to contribute. Reflecting on his experience, one founder said, “I think that allowing [my team] to help the company pivot and have their ideas not only heard, but acted on — that’s how they’ve developed a sense of ownership.” It isn’t easy to pull off, but the founders who embraced a combination of these seemingly incompatible leadership styles were the most successful at building collective ownership in their teams.
Takeaways for Founders
So what does this mean for startup founders? Ultimately, there’s a time and a place for both delegation and dictatorship — the important thing is to designate clear boundaries between the two. Based on our research, we suggest a simple three-step plan for founders looking to help their people foster a strong sense of collective ownership:
- Start by cataloguing the various elements of your business idea, such as the core technology, target market, product/service design, financial projections, and customer acquisition strategy.
- For each of these elements, determine for yourself whether they are fixed or open to change.
- Clearly (and consistently) communicate these distinctions to your team.
It’s natural that there will be parts of your idea that feel sacred, and other parts in which you will be happy to welcome feedback. To keep your team engaged and your business on track, what matters most is that you clearly designate which is which.
* Names have been changed to protect privacy.