As a project accountant at Thames Water, Mervin Nkole, ACMA, CGMA, is responsible for keeping senior management informed about spend on a number of London’s major infrastructure projects, involving numerous construction sites and contractor companies, and explaining any deviations from budget.
His portfolio includes the £4 billion Tideway Tunnel, which will run for approximately 20 miles through London, up to 75 metres below the surface. Upon completion, expected in 2023, the tunnel will capture storm sewage flows from 34 sewer overflow points along the River Thames. Other projects around the capital include flood alleviation schemes and upgrades to the existing wastewater infrastructure.
Nkole’s tips for effective project reporting to senior executives include:
Use graphs. Concentrate on the most important aspect of your message first. Rather than present a slide showing a lot of numbers, a graph which summarises the data, accompanied by a few key points, is a more effective way to tell the story. For instance, a graph showing monthly budget and forecast figures over the financial year gives a good insight into a project’s run rate spend against the primary factors. Nkole finds that these quick overview graphs help retain the audience’s attention when providing updates on several projects in a single session.
Understand your audience. Presenting to senior leadership requires an approach to regular project status updates different from how you’d brief a team which is involved in, and familiar with, the day-to-day operations. Avoiding the use of acronyms can save you having to provide clarifications later.
Get straight to the point. Streamline the information to offer only the details that you anticipate the audience might require, and keep your presentation succinct. Senior managers receive updates about large numbers of projects and thus tend to be less willing to listen to long-winded explanations. As a rule of thumb, Nkole restricts his commentary or explanations to two sentences per point – for example: “The £10 million underspend is a result of reprofiling servicing costs from June to August, with no impact against the year.”
Anticipate questions and prepare answers. When you provide your audience with accurate, relevant information, they tend to ask fewer questions in the closing Q&A. Anticipate the type of questions your audience may have and jot down some answers. Nkole says this process helps him evaluate the contents of his presentation and understand the relevance of all the materials in the reports.
Engage your stakeholders. A project accountant cannot succeed in isolation. The key is to have strong relationships with the people who are closest to the projects, and to network as much as possible. In Nkole’s case, these are the cost planners and the contracts managers. To build relationships, Nkole discusses with them exactly what he is looking for and the format his final report will take. When gathering the data for your report, make sure you ask your sources as many questions as you can. Where possible, send them a draft version of your report and ask for feedback. This approach helps to ensure the report is accurate and has the backing of those who contributed to it, Nkole explains.
Boots on the ground. To prepare for reports, Nkole visits each project site to gain a thorough understanding of the work being undertaken. This knowledge helps him understand the updates his partners provide and interpret that into the language of the finance team – his ultimate audience. For example, if a project reports a low spend on a particular month because managers did not pay one of their contractors, he can gauge whether this is simply reprofiling the cost or whether it will imply a change to the end-of-year figure.
Less is more. A streamlined report is key. “I always ask myself whether there are any pages I could do without,” Nkole says. “I often have a maximum of 15 minutes to convey my findings. That provides enough time to explain anything up to four pages, but no more.”
—Samantha White (Samantha.White@aicpa-cima.com) is a CGMA Magazine senior editor.
Photo by Stewart Turkington (www.stphotos.co.uk)