HR Administration

2011 WINNER: General Excellence—Ryan LLC

By Rita Pyrillis

Dec. 1, 2011

In 2005 Kristi Bryant was a fresh college graduate eager to move up the ranks at Ryan LLC, a Dallas-based tax services firm. The days were long but she had no problem staying late or working weekends, often logging 70-hour weeks. Employees were expected to put in a minimum of 50 hours a week and her extra efforts paid off—she quickly advanced from consultant to manager. So when she announced her resignation two years after joining the firm, her supervisors were stunned.

The company’s founder and CEO G. Brint Ryan summoned her to his office to find out why a top employee, who admittedly loved her job, was walking away from it.

“I told him it boiled down to the amount of time I was spending there and spending thinking about my job,” says Bryant, 33, who would soon be married and was thinking about starting a family. “Every day I felt overwhelmed. I couldn’t continue to live that kind of life, so I had to make a decision that would work for me and my family. It turned out that Brint had heard this story quite a bit, and it had been on his mind. He asked me to stay and try to change things. I didn’t want to leave but I also didn’t see how I could change a culture that had been in place for many, many years.”

But that’s exactly what G. Brint Ryan, Bryant and the firm did. The company went from being a clock-watching firm with a “sweatshop” reputation to one where employees can work as many hours as it takes to do their job and from any location. The company did away with its 50 hour a week requirement and with paid time off.

As long as goals are met and a manager approves, employees can take off as much time as they need. No one keeps track. Previously, employees were focused on “face time”—making sure they were seen at their desk by others, preferably a supervisor—whether they were working or not. Today the goal is measurable results, and whether they are met at the office or at a kitchen table is irrelevant.

In short, the company underwent a dramatic cultural transformation when it introduced myRyan, as the initiative is called, in 2008.

And Bryant, who is now director of sales tax consulting at Ryan and one step away from becoming a partner, was there to usher it in.

While many companies offer flexible work programs, Ryan transformed the way employees approach their jobs and in the process dramatically reduced turnover and improved morale.

For Kathleen Christensen, director of the Workplace, Work Force and Working Families program at the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, a mind shift in the way leaders and employees view flex time is critical to the success of these programs—something that Ryan seems to have accomplished. In fact, Ryan recently won a 2011 Alfred P. Sloan Award for Business Excellence in Workplace Flexibility. The foundation is a philanthropic grant-making organization based in New York City.

“It’s not just helping one or two people; it’s about thinking how the business can benefit,” Christensen says, adding that employers need to stop thinking of flexible work schedules as employee perks, but rather as a “business tool to achieve results.”

“Most companies see the value of the programs in theory, but don’t yet see the business case. And in this economy when people are getting laid off, they still have this idea that flex time is nice but it’s an add-on.”

Indeed, myRyan was not an easy sell. Managers were afraid they’d lose control of their teams, and longtime employees who were accustomed to a more rigid structure were skeptical, according to Delta Emerson, senior vice president, chief learning and organizational development officer.

Others were worried that a results-only philosophy meant that expectations would be set too high. And senior partners wondered why anyone would tamper with success. Business was good and customer satisfaction was high. Ryan, which was founded in 1991, had become one of the top corporate tax services firms in the country with 900 employees in 45 locations and annual revenue surpassing $215 million. Many were reluctant to change things.

In fact, Ryan lagged behind other accounting firms in embracing flex time, like Deloitte, which adopted a program in the early 1990s that was geared toward new mothers. Eventually, all Big 4 accounting firms—Ernst & Young, KPMG, PricewaterhouseCoopers and Deloitte—made flextime available to their entire workforce.

Initially, the employees were shocked, according to Emerson. Most were “ecstatic,” she says, but many employees were skeptical.

“Some people said this won’t last,” Emerson says. “Older people liked the concept of face time, of being seen in the office. They had worked comfortably in that environment for a long time.”

CEO Ryan says the company’s partners “thought I’d lost my mind.”

“I was only 26 when I started the company, and I only knew Coopers & Lybrand [now PricewaterhouseCoopers] where I worked 60-75 hours,” he says. “I thought 50-55 hours a week was a vacation. But that’s not what I was hearing. The linchpin was when Kristi Bryant, a new recruit and rising star said, ‘I love this company, I love my team, but here’s my resignation.’ I realized that we were way behind the curve when it came to flexibility. And more importantly, we had an opportunity to do something really transformational, something that was not only good for our people but would complement my strategy of building a global brand. We said we’re throwing the book out.”

While the company’s turnover rate was about 22 percent, several percentage points below the industry standard of 27 percent, according to Ryan, he realized that they needed to do better to achieve global recognition as “a talent magnet.” Employee morale was low, as evidenced from exit interviews and employee satisfaction surveys.

In 2007, committees were formed, employee focus groups were held and within 18 months Ryan launched a pilot myRyan program in its Houston office, which had the highest turnover rate in the company. After four months when it became apparent that the pilot was a success, Ryan’s entire management team of 100 was brought to Dallas for training, and myRyan was implemented companywide.

“If you don’t do it correctly, if you don’t have any rules going in to something like this, it could be problematic,” says Emerson, adding that constant and clear communication with employees is critical to any big culture shift. “We hire a lot of younger people straight out of college and they are not used to having this amount of flexibility. Not everyone is good with self-discipline.”

But having a “results only” focus also means that the best employees are easier to spot. “People who aren’t top performers became apparent really quickly. Our voluntary turnover went down dramatically, but involuntary turnover spiked about a point and a half at the end of the first year. The poor performers hit the surface pretty quickly. Some people just can’t cut it in a results-only environment.”

By 2010 the company’s voluntary turnover rate had dropped to less than 6 percent.

It was Ryan’s culture that drew Randall Emery, 32, to seek employment there last year.

“I came from American Airlines where there was much more emphasis on face time,” says Emery, a senior trainer in organizational development. “To me it was very attractive to be judged on my results. No one can concentrate 100 percent for eight hours. It’s just not possible. Here I can walk away from desk and regain my focus. I can schedule a doctor’s appointment from 9 to 10 without any worries that I’m going to lose face with my boss. But the most important thing is that I can work hard and have a life.”

For its flexible work program that reinvented the company’s workplace culture, Ryan is the 2011 winner of the Optimas Award for General Excellence.

Workforce Management, December 2011, p. 16-18

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Rita Pyrillis is a writer based in the Chicago area.

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