It was the middle of 2008, and G. Brint Ryan was uneasy about his business. Overall, he was confident that the Dallas-based tax firm he’d founded 17 years earlier was on solid ground and was poised for continued success. But one thing was bugging him: Workers had been leaving the company in growing numbers. Ryan LLC’s annual attrition rate — though still below the accounting industry norm of 27 percent — had been creeping up. Eighteen percent. Twenty. Twenty-two.
Then, one day late that summer, as Ryan recalls, “the critical event” happened: One of his firm’s fast-rising employees, a young woman a couple years out of college, asked to meet with him. Her request got his attention. It felt urgent.
“Her name is Kristi Bryant,” Ryan recalls. “At that time, she was a brand-new team leader. She came in and said, ‘Brint, I have to tell you, I love this company. I love the work I do. I find it challenging; I find it rewarding. I just love this place … and here’s my resignation letter.’
“I said, ‘Whoa, time out. Tell me why you’re leaving. Are you going to a competitor?’ She said no; then she repeated, ‘I love this place, I love the work. … But, you know, I’m recently married, and I’ve decided to start a family, and we’ve made the determination that work at Ryan is incompatible with a life outside work. It’s just not possible.’”
The words hit Ryan like freight train.
“It laid me out,” he says. “It’s one thing when you have a marginal performer that leaves; you don’t shed a lot of tears. But this was different. When your very top people [opt out] because of the work environment — well, that’s a problem.”
Strike a deal
So Ryan cut to the chase with Bryant. He said, “Look, Kristi, I don’t want to lose you. But more importantly, I see you as a representative of a large class of our younger top performers. So I’ll make a bargain with you: If you’ll stay and give me a chance to work on this, then I’ll let you head up the initiative, and we’ll figure out what’s wrong with this work environment, and we’ll change it.” She said, “Well, let me think about it.”
“So she went away and thought about it for a couple days, then she came back and said, ‘Now, look: If you’re sincere about this — I mean, if you’re truly ready to embrace meaningful change — then I’ll stay and I’ll lead the initiative.’ And I said, ‘Fine, you’re on.’ So that’s what we did.”
Ryan next sat down with his company’s human resources team, and together they decided that their first step toward determining what the company’s new work environment should look like would be to conduct some research to assess how the accounting industry was changing. They quickly did that, and their findings underscored some tectonic shifts in the marketplace that the company’s leaders were aware of but hadn’t been paying much attention to. The accounting industry had changed dramatically from the time G. Brint Ryan began working in the 1980s. It had gone from a male-dominated sector to a female-dominated one. And in response to that shift, some of Ryan LLC’s big competitors had installed flextime and telecommuting programs to make their work environments more suitable for families and women with young children.
Ryan’s firm, conversely, hadn’t made any such moves and was gaining a reputation for being, as the CEO puts it, “a sweatshop” — especially on college campuses, where accounting and tax firms compete for the young talent that feeds their business.
“I had started [the company] in 1991, and at that point I had a little over three years of professional experience,” Ryan says. “I was very much a product of public accounting. And public accounting in the 1980s was very rigid. People wore the amount of hours they worked like a badge of honor. It was very inflexible. And we adopted that model. From 1991 to 2008, we operated in that fashion. We had mandatory work hours of between 50 and 55 hours a week year-round. We communicated to new hires that that was our requirement. We expected people to be in their seats at 8:30, and we expected them to be here until the work was finished. There wasn’t a lot of give in that model. And it worked fine. … I mean, we were successful.”
Seek fresh input
Clearly, though, signs were pointing toward the need for change. That old model wasn’t necessarily working fine anymore. Ryan LLC’s attrition rate was inching up, and it was getting tougher to recruit and retain young talent. So Ryan brought in a consulting firm that had experience working with companies in similar predicaments.
“This [consulting] firm had done a number of assignments and had coined the term ‘results-only work environment,’” Ryan says. “Their idea was truly radical: You throw out the work schedule, you throw out the work location, and you basically just measure people on results. You tell them, ‘I don’t care when you come to work; I don’t really even care if you come to work. Here are the things I want you to accomplish. And as long as you accomplish them and do them well, your life is your own. There are no rules.’
“We were intrigued by that. We saw it as a way to catch up; we saw it as a way to even leapfrog our competition. Because we knew that success comes, for us, by creating a talent magnet: a work environment where everybody wants to be here, where people from other firms are envious and want to be here. We knew that was critical. We knew we could not continue losing our top talent because of a set of work rules that didn’t fit today’s professionals.”
The consulting firm sold Ryan on its results-only approach, and shortly thereafter, Ryan announced to his employees that the company was going to institute the system, initially for a three-month pilot program in the last quarter of 2008.
“We knew this was a radical change, but the old rules weren’t working for us anymore,” he says. “So we ripped off the Band-Aid. I told the organization we’re moving forward with this.”
Not surprisingly, the younger employees at Ryan LLC were elated. They embraced the new system — immediately, enthusiastically. But most of their bosses did not. In fact, many of the senior staffers hated the concept. Ryan says he had expected there would be some discomfort; change is always unsettling. He had even anticipated a few pockets of resistance throughout the firm. But he was taken aback at the intensity of the disapproval from many of his upper and middle managers.
“I greatly underestimated the organizational resistance we were going to get,” he says. “I was caught pretty much flat-footed by it. I had senior partners coming to me and saying,
Look, we don’t know what’s happened to you, but you’re going to tank this place. This won’t work. People will not show up to work. If there’s not somebody standing over them making sure they’re producing, then production’s going to go in the tank. And by the way, Brint, we get paid for the time we put in on the services we provide to our clients.’
“I said, ‘Well, you know, that may be right, but I’m willing to take that chance, because I want to create something that is truly dynamic, and we’re 20 years behind the curve. We’ve not only gotta catch up, we’ve gotta get in front of the competition. And this is the only way that I see that we can do it.’”
Ryan knew he was taking a big risk. He knew the results-only system represented a drastic shift for his organization. But he sensed that the firm needed to make a deep-seated change and that he had to be aggressive in making it happen.
“We knew the old way didn’t work,” he says. “And to be honest, we didn’t know if this new way would work or not. But we knew we had to do something. And I felt deeply that we had to do something radical — that an incremental change was not going to get us where we needed to go. We felt like we were too far behind to just incrementally, you know, put a Band-Aid on it and keep going.”
Ryan and his leadership team knew they had an uphill battle ahead of them, but they were determined to push through it.
When they installed the new system, Ryan says the firm encountered a lot of what he calls “malicious compliance,” as well as some outright noncompliance, mainly on the part of some of the managers. In some cases, people were so adamantly opposed that they ultimately had to leave the firm.
“That was one of the unintended consequences of this,” Ryan says. “When we went to this program full time, we found that there was a small subset of our population that simply couldn’t work under those arrangements. They needed constant supervision. They needed somebody directing them on a day-by-day, hour-by-hour, sometimes minute-by-minute basis. And within a relatively short period of time, those people left the firm. And frankly, overall that’s good for the organization — and it’s good for them too because they need to find an environment that’s suitable for them.”
But overall, Ryan and his leadership team were able to convince most of the firm’s managers to give the new program a fair shake.
“Here’s the way we got most of our management team on board,” Ryan says. “When you look at those teams that have low attrition rates, they are dramatically more productive and more successful than those that have high attrition rates. So we sat our management team down and said, look, whether you philosophically agree with this or not, the key to your success is developing a team environment — just like our overall [company] work environment — where people want to come to work, they’re happy with the leadership they get, and there’s flexibility so they can achieve a work-life balance. And the sooner you get on board with that, the more successful you’re going to be.
“So one by one, we chipped away at it. One by one, we moved them in that direction. And while we still have some issues that we encounter from time to time — where managers have their own interpretation of how the program is supposed to work — for the most part, we have the team on board. And now it’s become expected.”
A little more than a year after Ryan LLC initiated its results-only work system, Ryan says his risky move started to pay dividends.
“At the end of 2009, a miraculous thing happened,” he says. “When we looked at the metrics at the end of the year, we had done some remarkable things. First, we had reduced our turnover from 22.5 percent all the way down to 8 percent. We had to go back and recheck the numbers because we thought, wait, that can’t be right.
“In addition, we posted the highest revenue we’d ever posted as a firm, and a record profit, in what was one of the absolute worst economic environments I’ve seen in my professional career. So we were beside ourselves.”
Ryan says he and his leadership team are now fully invested in the results-only work system for the firm.
“We’re big believers in creating a work environment where people can do their best work, not one where we try to second-guess when they should come to work, or where they should work from,” he says. “We know that people work differently. Some people like to get up early in the morning and knock things out. Other people work later in the day, or they work at different times. And sometimes they’re more effective when they’re away from the office than when they’re in the office.”
Perhaps most importantly, Ryan says the flexible work program has made his firm a hit on the college recruiting trail.
“It’s become one of the most valuable recruiting tools we have,” he says. “When you can go to a college campus and say you’ve won several best-place-to-work awards — and, oh, by the way, here’s how the program works, and this is the type of flexibility you’re going to have — they’re overwhelmed. So we’re getting more than our fair share of the top talent as a result of the program.”
HOW TO REACH: Ryan LLC, (972) 934-0022, www.ryan.com
THE RYAN FILE
Name: G. Brint Ryan
Title: Founder, CEO and Managing Principal
Company: Ryan LLC
Born: Big Spring, Texas
Education: University of North Texas, bachelor’s and master’s degrees in accounting
What was your first job, and what did you learn from it?
I was a newspaper carrier for the Big Spring Herald. That was one of my most difficult collection jobs. But you know what? You learn that if you don’t collect the money, you don’t eat. So it was a valuable skill. Also, there’s nothing like dealing with the public, dealing with the retail trade, to put your mind in the right frame of reference. Because you deal with all types of people. And the objective is to get them all to take the paper and to pay on time. So you learn to be persuasive, and you learn to be persistent. You get turned down more times than bedsheets, yet you just keep on going.
Do you have a core business philosophy that you use to guide you?
Since the beginning of this firm, the thing that’s always guided me is that if you take good care of your clients and you do your best work, everything else falls into place: the money, the opportunities — they are all byproducts of just doing the best job that you can.
What trait do you think is the most important one for a a business leader to have in order to be successful?
Probably the one that’s most important is communication. The ability to connect with people, the ability to understand and empathize with people, is a critical leadership skill. You can’t do anything big by yourself, so you’ve got to be able to build and lead teams to success. And you can’t do that if you can’t communicate — if you can’t identify with and connect with the people you’re trying to lead.