Why Every Corporate Accountant Needs Project Management Skills
A solid understanding of the three-legged stool of project management is key to becoming a strategic business advisor in your organization.
Tina Golsch, CPA, MBA
Enterprise Finance Services, Boeing
I have no doubt that your organization has goals and objectives—probably some of them
are annual initiatives as well. Whether the goals are cascaded down from your board or
CEO, or you help to define them based on the most urgent business needs finance
identifies, having strong project management skills can position you as a leader in your
organization, a go-to resource for help in achieving and executing the organization’s
business goals and initiatives.
A solid foundation for your project management skills starts with a sound understanding of
the three-legged stool of project management: time, cost, and quality. If quality needs to
go up without additional costs, additional time will be required. If your timeline includes a
fixed deadline, then your only variables are cost and quality. Project management is always
a balancing act in this regard, and you must be able and willing to be flexible and ask all
the questions needed to ensure your project goes as planned.
When it comes to project planning, I’ve found the best approach is the SMART approach
(and I assure you this works in both your personal and professional life). The meaning of
SMART has been updated by numerous management experts since its debut in 1981, but
it can be broken down into the following:
• Specific (simple, sensible, significant)
• Measurable (meaningful, motivating)
• Achievable (agreed, attainable)
• Relevant (reasonable, realistic, resourced, results-based)
• Time bound (time-based, time limited, time/cost limited, timely, time-sensitive)
Utilizing the SMART framework puts your mind in a different state, one that ensures your
goals or objectives are clear and reachable. By conforming to the SMART criteria, you are
forced to think about the steps needed to achieve your goals and the questions that must
be asked throughout the planning and implementation phases.
For instance, you might be reading this column, thinking about a year-end goal you still
need to complete, and asking how you can reach it in a specific, measurable, and
Have you identified exactly what you need to achieve? Have you broken the work
into tasks and milestones? What work needs to be sequential, and what work could happen
in parallel? What work effort is needed to complete the tasks? Have you accounted for
not just work effort but also total duration? Within your plan of action, have you identified
One common pitfall of project planning and project management is not accounting for
resource constraints. In a corporate setting, you’re going to have to rely on other resources,
and you’re going to have other responsibilities, which means you must account upfront that
you will never be able to work toward your goal 100 percent of your time. Consider not
only your busy times but also those of the other people you may need, and then account
for the extra time that may be needed if your project occurs during a busy period. Similarly, you can’t afford to assume that other resources will automatically
be available or able to help you. Anytime a project includes external
resources, account for their time constraints and accommodate
them. This may mean establishing a longer runway for the project
or getting buy-in from other stakeholders in your organization.
When tasked with executing a project, it’s common for our
corporate finance minds to take command and get things moving
as efficiently as possible. That may be fine if it’s just your project,
but a project or initiative that affects the organization is going to
require the support of other stakeholders that could make or break
your success—on this project and future ones. Do you know who
your stakeholders are? Are they supportive of these goals and your
plan to achieve them? Will you need their help? If so, are they willing
to actively support you? Which stakeholders are the most
impacted? If they are in a different part of the organization do their
goals conflict with yours? How will you work through this? Will your
goals need to be adjusted? Are there harmonization efforts
needed? Do you get my point? I am cautioning you that stakeholder
impact and support cannot be overlooked if you want to be a
successful and respected project manager.
Another common project management pitfall is working under the
assumption that everything will work perfectly and according to
plan: The first draft of the project plan being reviewed will be able
to be sent out immediately; the resources you need will be
available; the person who sees your ideas for the first time will be
an immediate and enthusiastic supporter. Building those sorts of
assumptions into your plan just makes it harder for you to stay on
target. Rather, I encourage you to build baseline sidesteps into your
project management plan as a natural part of proceeding on your
path. Doing so will help you along the way, reduce any potential
frustration when you encounter challenges, and create realistic
expectations of your plan.
Alongside setting realistic expectations, identifying risks to your
plan actually helps to de-risk it, because you then must think about
how you can mitigate your risk. Does altering your plan slightly
mitigate that risk, or is a larger contingency plan more beneficial?
Creating a contingency plan for certain risks can help you stay on
track during critical time periods since you will not be wasting time
trying to determine a new course of action.
Time is critical when it comes to project management—even when
a strict deadline isn’t set. The schedule of a project’s plan of action
is often the piece that is the most analyzed. If time is on your side,
put quality first. If time is working against you, put in the effort and
standards that allows you to avoid rework while meeting deadlines.
I particularly find it helpful to set milestones to keep me on schedule.
To do this, it’s critical to know how and when you’ll be measured
on the project’s success when creating your project management
plan. What is the frequency of the project, and then will progress
updates be expected weekly, monthly, quarterly, or just as issues
arise? Consider if there are tasks that you should incorporate into
your plan to help measure progress and safeguard your milestones.
Also take note of whether the project is essentially a stretch goal
or a business-critical initiative that could impact you if the goal is
not completely achieved. Ensuring your project management plan
is based on clear and thorough corporate expectations is the only
way to effectively meet those expectations.
So, whenever you’re tasked with being a project manager,
be SMART about it. Being recognized as an effective and
respected project manager can do amazing things for your
corporate finance career.