PandaDoc Culture: Stronger Than Ever

Since we’ve already published articles on how PandaDoc's culture code has emerged, we’re changing our focus to how it’s evolving. PandaDoc has scaled significantly over the past few years to now include nearly 1,000 Pandas worldwide, so processes are changing. We spoke with PandaDoc Co-founder / CTO Sergey Barysiuk about how to maintain the original culture's spirit as the company continues to grow and thrive.

PandaDoc introduced its initial culture code when the company consisted of around 100 people worldwide. The company’s grown so much since then. How has the culture code changed during this time?

The main idea behind creating a PandaDoc culture code in 2016-17 was to articulate for ourselves who we want to work with. Because by that point we’d made multiple mishires, especially in senior leadership, which we couldn't figure out.

Things were not working out, so we decided to write down what exactly we look for in people, both in professional skills and what’s required for our company. That's basically how our culture code was created.

Since then, we’ve made, I believe, two major changes to the culture code. The first was mostly about clean-up and improving its structure, without making many fundamental changes to the code itself. The second was in 2020, when we added our new core company value of “Empathy.” This was our reaction to things happening in the world at that time: COVID, the devolving situation in Belarus, and, I think now retroactively, the situation in Ukraine as well. So we added this fourth value to our previous three of “Learn,” “Impact,” and “Fun.”

Overall, we haven’t made many changes to the culture code because of how we originally wrote it. From the start, it was more fundamental and focused on beliefs versus something shallow. And if you think about this, your beliefs do not necessarily change very often, if ever. Even with the significant growth of our company, and all the changes that have come with this growth, our culture code hasn’t changed much.

Sergey Barysiuk
Sergey Barysiuk
[CTO, co-founder]

The culture code was developed by the founders, then shared with the rest of the company. This seems like a top-to-bottom approach. Which do you think is the best approach: Top-to-bottom, bottom-to-top, or a combination?

If you think about the culture code and what it is fundamentally, it's a set of beliefs imagined. It’s not something that’s complete once it’s been created — it needs to be articulated, even if just for ourselves. And I think that's what happened with us. We were analyzing what specifically we find helpful in a particular situation when we work with people, what we value, and how we like to work with people. Because if you go back to the culture code, it actually details what we like and don't like, how we like to work (and how we don't like to work), and what we value in others — and in ourselves as well.

So, I don't see this as taking a top-to-bottom approach. It's more like a manifestation of our personal beliefs we’ve shared with the company. Because especially in the very beginning, when you start building a company, you tend to hire people who share your same beliefs. It’s very normal for people to work with others who share their fundamental beliefs, values, etc.

We took a slightly different approach with our culture code by articulating what we value, then sharing it with the company. And I think it resonated, because if you think about our three original core values — learning, making a positive impact, and having fun — those were our ambitions when we founded the company. We wanted to learn a lot, because we didn’t know much. We wanted to make an impact back in the days when we hoped to build a company that would operate in the global market. And we wanted to have fun, because we actually enjoyed what we were doing. After all, you spend a lot of time at work, so this is important.

Our culture code manifested all this because, in the very beginning, we hired like-minded people. So, as your company grows, you can expect to get more feedback than you did back in your early days. And with the help of your peers and employees, you adapt this culture code as you continue to grow.

How have you integrated PandaDoc’s culture code into your organization and business? And how does it support you?

If we go back to the foundation and why we created this culture code, we wanted to figure out what wasn't working with certain hires. So we articulated what was important to us, then started using our culture code as a hiring tool. We compared candidates with our culture code to see if we shared the same values. You can say we used our culture code as a filter.

And we continue to use it for our hiring to this day. We have a specific stage in our current interview process when we do a “culture check.”

How does our culture code support the company? When you apply it to the people you consider hiring, you tend to bring aboard like-minded people — not necessarily in terms of their skill set, but their core values. It makes your life much easier because you don't need to realign on fundamental beliefs.

If a candidate isn’t super excited about making a positive impact, I don't think they'll be successful at PandaDoc. And vice versa — we're probably not the right company for them, because this isn’t our ideal approach. I think our culture code creates a basis for new hires to align with us on fundamental values. It also saves us time, because once you align on fundamental values right away, you can then work on next-level items that push the business forward.

Our culture code also attracts the right people. When someone considers our company’s values, they may imagine how it’ll go for them if they join us. It helps them evaluate us and see if we’re actually a good fit for them. So in this way, our culture code helps both sides.

Also, if you consider recent global events, the culture we’ve created has helped PandaDoc become resilient. You can check the first issue of Bamboo and read about how we reacted to turbulent times. Our culture and fundamental beliefs have been the glue that’s held us together and helped us overcome obstacles and events still happening, like the war in Ukraine. Our internal culture has definitely helped our company remain stable.

Is there a way to actually measure culture? How do you know you're doing things according to your culture code?

Well, I don't think you can measure culture exactly. It's just a matter of always collecting feedback from people and trying to understand what's going right and what's going wrong, according to our culture code.

What we do at PandaDoc is collect a lot of metrics and feedback — it's more qualitative than quantitative. This means we talk to people, we collect eNPS with open questions, and we try to understand how people view certain things at the company. We also use our culture code and core values to praise and recognize people. For example, in Slack, when we praise someone or highlight a job well done, we have different core values to select from — this helps show how people represent our values in the way they approach their work.

And as an extension of all this, we recognize people who demonstrate our core values during a specific period — how they’ve done it and which value(s) they’ve represented, while providing examples.

Has PandaDoc’s global employee base changed the company culture and culture code?

Since our culture and culture code is more about fundamental beliefs and core values, it hasn’t changed significantly in terms of, “Oh, we’ve changed all our core values.” Our core values are pretty common across all our different countries and cultures. There are obviously nuances to each country’s culture represented at PandaDoc, so we try to adjust communication style, expectations, approaches to business, and other things that may affect our day-to-day work. And obviously, it changes the way we communicate, since we have so many people living in different parts of the world. We’ve had to settle on a common language, so we’ve made English our official communication channel at the company.

But if you think about our core values and culture code, even geography and cultural differences don't change these much.

In The Talent Code, author Daniel Coyle discusses how “strong cultures don’t hide their weaknesses — they make a habit of sharing them, so they can improve together.” How do you improve PandaDoc’s culture?

I mentioned that we collect qualitative (and some quantitative) feedback. Improving culture is simply a feedback loop between your employees and teammates: Ask for and receive feedback on what's happening, then tweak things, if necessary.

Adding empathy as a core value to our culture code is a great example of something that came from this feedback loop, because of what we started seeing during COVID and the way it all unfolded. People were quite stressed at that point, and COVID clearly wasn’t going to be a quick thing. We realized we needed to show how we'd support our people — that we understood the difficulties so many people were experiencing. We needed to adjust our business to suit the situation.

When we started moving out of our offices in Florida, California, and Belarus and into remote work, we were battling both COVID and challenges in the market. Over time, unfortunate events began unfolding in Belarus and, a year and a half after that, Ukraine.

We introduced empathy at the right time, so we started doing a lot of things internally to support this core value, such as relocation support for those who needed it most, plus special packages for those in need of financial support. And it all started from the feedback loop I mentioned — finding out how our people are feeling through eNPS surveys, then constantly making adjustments.

Our culture code has always been about more than just words. It’s been about real actions and programs. For example, how we support mental health, so our people can use online tools or consult professionals for support. All these things spring from this core value we added back in 2020.

questions by
Kasya Leu
illustrated by
Elina Tsylke
photos and pictures by
PandaDoc and public sources
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