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A Workplace That Inspires Passion: An Interview with Sarah Wagener

In a remarkable interview with The HR Digest, Sarah Wagener talks about the value of creating a passionate work culture in the global business sector. “We execute, while collaborating,” she says. “We get to the lowest level of detail, while remaining positive, optimistic and empathetic. We obsess about our customers, while working together across teams to deliver for them.” As a prominent influencer of diversity, the Chief People Officer at DoorDash has made a magnificent contribution to paving the way to a culture fit for the industry’s most driven workers.

Sarah-Wagener

The HR Digest: When you arrived at DoorDash in 2018, you implemented a number of people enablement programs to scale the company’s headcount by 9x through today. Can you tell HR Digest readers how you accomplished this unique feat?

Sarah Wagener: When I arrived at DoorDash in 2018 and took over leadership of the People team as our first Chief People Officer, there was much work to do to prepare the team to support the company’s bold growth plans. 

First, I needed to transition the team’s operating model from a generalist model to distinct teams of operators and specialists with focused mandates and deliverables. Next, I brought in expertise in critical areas like DEI with the focus of weaving DEI throughout the fabric of the People team and embedding it in our growth plans. Evolving the company’s culture is critical for successful expansion, and with that, we assessed our company values, made adjustments to reflect the company we are and strive to be, re-launched our company values, and embedded them across the employee lifecycle. We also doubled down on building a world-class recruiting function––which is always a work in progress in a high growth environment––and continued to refine the recruiting machine that is central to delivering on our growth plans. 

Keeping our customers front and center in our plans has been a critical component in building and scaling our People team. This customer-first approach is core to how we operate at DoorDash overall, and addressing the needs of our candidates and employees has been critical to how we have endeavored to make DoorDash a place where each and every employee can do the best work of their careers.

DoorDash is said to have a passionate work culture fit for the industry’s most driven workers. To what extent is that down to a successful talent management strategy?

At DoorDash, we have 12 values that are in place to guide the behaviors of our people, such that everyone amplifies our culture vs. needing to fit into it. We organize them in these 4 buckets:

  • We are Doers: Creating solutions that will lead our company and our industry is what we do — on every project, every day.
  • We are Learners: Everyone here is learning on the job, no matter if we’ve been in a role for one year or one minute. 
  • We are Leaders: Leadership is not limited to our management team. It’s something everyone at DoorDash embraces and embodies.
  • We are One Team: The magic of DoorDash is our people, together making our ambitious goals attainable and driving us to greater heights. 

Many of our values are operational in nature; however, execution alone does not drive a winning culture. The balance of our values between what we do and how we work together to do it is the secret sauce at DoorDash. We execute, while collaborating. We get to the lowest level of detail, while remaining positive, optimistic and empathetic. We obsess about our customers, while working together across teams to deliver for them. It truly is an AND, not either/or culture at DoorDash. 

Talent Management comes in the form of ensuring that our team’s performance is assessed and measured against the how (living our values) and the what (delivery and impact). Having a credible and reliable performance system for calibrating and measuring talent is the first step. Next is being deliberate and planful in how top talent is recognized, grown, deployed and retained is core to successful talent management. Compensation and rewards are only part of the equation––top talent yearns to grow and expand––so, ensuring that they are leveraged to take on new initiatives and solve our toughest problems is a huge part of driving a successful operating culture at DoorDash.

How do you keep your people open to transformational growth and innovation?

Our business evolves quickly and every day, new challenges appear that require expert problem-solving. The very nature of how our business expands is what drives everyone to continue growing and expanding at the same rate. We are upfront about this in the recruiting process and reinforce this through our company values, so that it is not something we have to keep people open to, but instead, is expected and embraced by our employees. Everyone from our CEO to our most recent hire is expected to get 1% better everyday. It is a part of who we are, and fundamental to being successful at DoorDash.

When you set out to recruit new talent, what do you look for? How do you retain star performers to DoorDash?

We believe obsessing about our customers is much more effective when our people represent our customer’s communities. Diversity, equity, inclusion, and representation are business imperatives at DoorDash. We endeavor to grow and advance the careers of underrepresented people of color and those identifying as womxn and non-binary, while always making room at the table for diverse perspectives and voices.

Trust and transparency gives DoorDash a small team feel, despite our company’s huge ambitions. Our transparent, open culture means our people can ask leaders anything, and because we’re tackling new challenges and uncharted territory every day, we need teammates from varied backgrounds and identities to help us think outside the room and solve these problems in ways no one has before. Progress doesn’t come from always agreeing, and that’s why we need diverse voices – no matter what level someone is, or what their resume says.

Our employee resource groups (ERGs) help foster safe spaces for our people to connect and support one another in communities that share similar experiences. We have found that supporting our people through the sponsoring of communities like ERGs drives a deeper connection to the company and a stronger sense of belonging overall. And studies show when people feel like they belong––truly belong––they operate at their very best. 

In addition to cultivating strong employee connections, our recognition of our people is a core part of our retention strategy. We have a twice-a-year merit cycle designed to deliver concrete feedback that supports people growth, while ensuring our compensation rewards top performers. We define what’s best for DoorDash by what’s good for our mission, and we take pride in seeing the impact of our hard work. We believe that outsized performance warrants outsized rewards, and people who contribute meaningfully to our mission are recognized for it.

What do you consider your most rewarding experience in professional life?

My most rewarding experience comes from fostering growth within DoorDash, particularly in raising up women and people from underrepresented backgrounds in leadership. I’m passionate about supporting equality of opportunity, and ensuring that we’re making room for every voice and perspective at the table. As long as I can use my position to attract more underrepresented talent and create a team of leaders that represents the diversity of our communities, I consider that a success.

How are you going to shake things up next?

It’s difficult to answer this question because I feel like I have to shake things up everyday! Each day brings with it insanely complicated problems to solve, at a scale and complexity that is rare and unique to DoorDash. I have described working at DoorDash as equal parts exhilarating and exhausting––yet 100% rewarding. I am required to stretch, expand, and grow in ways that I never have in my career. I am a smarter, faster, and more creative People leader because of my time here at DoorDash, and the best part is that it is just beginning. So, when I think about how I am going to shake things up, I have to say: it is difficult to think of a time here when I haven’t been required to shake things up.  

The COVID-19 crisis has caused instability for workers across the globe. How does this affect DoorDash’s expansion and the overall global talent?

Our expansion strategy has always centered around where we can provide value––for merchants seeking new ways to grow their businesses, consumers seeking convenience, and Dashers seeking flexible opportunities to earn. In many ways, COVID-19 just accelerated many of the trends we were already seeing across local commerce, and rather than changing our strategy, it simply accelerated timelines for plans we already had in the works.

When everything changed in March 2020, my team, along with the DoorDash management team, needed to seamlessly make the transition from working in our offices to effectively operating and executing at the same high level, while working from home, all with very little warning. To support our people through this transition, we rolled out financial support to help set up functional home working environments, free PPE to keep them stay safe when they needed to leave their homes, enhanced paid leave to those who need more time to recover from COVID-19, and a resource center where they can access the support they need as they navigated WFH.

Today, DoorDash operates in the U.S., Canada, and Australia, and our corporate offices throughout all three countries are currently closed, as we prioritize the safety and wellbeing of our employees during the ongoing pandemic. While we’re seeing hopeful trends in vaccinations and decreasing COVID-19 cases, my team’s focus continues to be on our people, and ensuring that everyone on the DoorDash team has access to the resources and information they need to do great work, feel supported, and understand what is going on across the company, day to day. 

Priyansha Mistry
Currently editor at The HR Digest Magazine. She helps HR professionals identify issues with their talent management and employment law. | Priyansha tweets at @PriyanshaMistry

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