This game developer CHRO has found a winning talent strategy

HR Honor Roll winner Jeff Ryan of Zynga has helped bring "alive" the company's culture, boosting engagement, retention and more.
By: | October 6, 2021

When Jeff Ryan took the helm of HR at video game developer Zynga in 2017, he followed in the footsteps of five other HR leaders—who had all cycled through the job in just the previous three years.

While the organization, founded in 2007 and known for developing such games as Words with Friends and FarmVille, has long had a standout culture—rooted in collaboration and innovation—it had gone through a “rough patch,” Ryan says, with a downturn in morale and business outcomes, making it harder to both recruit and retain top talent. When CEO Frank Gibeau joined the company in 2016, he refocused Zynga on driving success with talent and culture, which set the wheels in motion for the company to head on a “different trajectory”—and that, coupled with turning around employer branding, became Ryan’s mission.

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“[Zynga has] had a tremendous culture, it just really needed to come alive,” Ryan says.

Listening, learning and responding

The turnaround over the last few years is evident in its recent accolades: In 2020, Zynga employees voted the People Operations team the best Partner Team at the organization, and the company was certified as a Great Place to Work® earlier this year.

Jeff Ryan

Like most, Zynga faced culture challenges through the pandemic but, Ryan says, tackled them with a multipronged approach that centered on communication: listening sessions, focus groups and surveys, while leaders also shared information freely, almost to the point of “overcommunicating,” Ryan says. The organization tapped a small events team to shift in-person activities online, ramped up the work of its employee resource groups—to which 70% of Zynga employees now belong—and significantly enhanced benefits to provide ongoing support. Leadership was also attuned to the specific needs of Zynga employees around the world; for instance, as the pandemic devastated India earlier this year, it held a vaccine drive in partnership with a local hospital that helped 400 of its India-based employees and their families get the shot.

“It was that combination of being really transparent, with leadership out in front, putting the focus on employees, and really listening and learning that’s helped,” Ryan says.

See also: Your culture has changed. Here’s how to shape it for the future

And, the efforts are paying off, according to the workforce data: Attrition was down 7% from the start of 2020 through mid-2021, external applicants were up a significant 46% over the last year and Zynga’s employee engagement score rose 18% between 2019 and 2020.

“The most important thing [that has fueled engagement through the pandemic] is that this wasn’t just an HR practice: It was across the entire organization, managers and employees across the company—they all showed up with a high degree of empathy, understanding and compassion for the situation we were in,” Ryan says. “That goes a long way in building trust.”

Doubling down on diversity

While Ryan focused on the people aspect of Zynga’s pandemic response, he also led the company’s enhanced investment in another critical area: diversity, equity and inclusion.

The organization has a longstanding commitment to DE&I, dovetailing with the needs of its customer base—60% of whom are women. Five out of nine board members are women or people of color, Zynga was one of the first 13 companies to sign the Pay Equity Pledge in California—a corporate promise to institute policies and practices to root out inequity—and it has undertaken a comprehensive equal pay assessment for the past four years.

Click here to read about HR Executive of the Year Kathleen Hogan, CHRO at Microsoft.

Shortly after the murder of George Floyd, Ryan worked with Gibeau and the board to develop a global social justice fund, backed by a $25 million investment. Internally, the organization expanded a partnership with YearUp and established a scholar program for underrepresented communities interested in gaming careers. More than half of its intern class came from diverse communities, and eight out of 10 promotions to vice president positions over the last year-and-a-half went to women or employees from underrepresented communities.

Zynga launched its first DE&I-specific survey earlier this year, generating baseline data that it will now use to measure against. The research showed employees had a “high degree of belief…and pride” in the organization, Ryan says, but were craving more clarity on such issues as equal pay, prompting the company to roll out a new communication strategy around its equal pay analysis.

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With such an expanded focus on DE&I, last summer Zynga leadership hired Vijay Pendakur, who previously helmed DE&I at Cornell University, for the newly created position of chief diversity officer, which reports to Ryan.

“Diversity and inclusion has been important to Zynga, but we didn’t have an expert,” he says. “Many great people were involved in the strategy—and it takes a lot of people to do it—but we wanted somebody with deep experience focused on DE&I to really help Zynga as a leader in the industry.”

Related: 3 opportunities to reimagine how we think about diversity

Positivity and pride

Looking ahead, Ryan expects DE&I to remain a top priority for his HR team, along with the evolving impacts of the pandemic. The Zynga workforce will remain remote through the end of this year, as the organization rolls out its future of work model, called Connected Workplace—with agility embedded throughout the design and a focus on technology to keep dispersed employees connected.

Learning and development tailored to this future of work will also be on the horizon for Zynga, along with “building world-class studios,” where developers work.

“Our talent is what creates our success, so [we are] ensuring our worldwide studios have the most amazing people in them with tremendous cultures so that team members can do the best work of their careers and help the company to grow,” Ryan says.

He plans to navigate those objectives with the same attitude that he says helped him confront the challenges of the last year-and-a-half: Invoking empathy and staying positive. For instance, he tries to counter the detriments of the pandemic by focusing on the extra time he’s been able to spend with his kids—a daughter who just started college and a 14-year-old son—the ability to exercise more and the introduction of technology tools that have kept him connected to colleagues.

“Staying positive, staying calm, staying kind—that has been what’s gotten me through it,” he says. “But [the pandemic is] still going; we’re not out yet.”

While his career and education didn’t necessarily train him to manage a workforce through a pandemic, it did ignite his passion for cultivating talent to drive business success. Ryan spent time in Japan teaching English and joined a small training company that gave him a taste for employee development, paving the way for an HR manager role at a Japanese tech start-up. He ultimately enrolled in the UCLA Anderson School of Management’s MBA program.

“I spent a lot of time on leadership, organizational health and design and got fascinated by what makes certain companies successful and why some fail—and the impact talent can have on that,” he says.

At Zynga, that talent has been key to HR’s recent success. Ryan says he has immense “pride in the entire Zynga team and the People Operations and Workplace Services teams, which I have the privilege of representing. I’m really proud of this [HR Honor Roll] award, but it’s a reflection of the tremendous work they have done and that employees around the company have done.”

Jen Colletta is managing editor at HRE. She earned bachelor's and master's degrees in writing from La Salle University in Philadelphia and spent 10 years as a newspaper reporter and editor before joining HRE. She can be reached at hreletters@lrp.com.

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