How Construction Accounting Can Speak (and Understand) the Language of Leadership


It can be a tall order to get accountants, project managers, and leadership to see things through the same lens. Everyone has similar goals, but usually different approaches for reaching them. One party may be totally averse to risk while the other accepts it as the cost of doing business.

So, how does the CFO or chief accountant break down that barrier so they can stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the project management team? That’s what we asked the team at Forvis, and their answer was clear: By speaking and understanding the language of project leadership.

Four Approaches

The team at Forvis suggested four approaches to earning the respect and acceptance of the project management team. They felt that adopting a forward-looking outlook, developing an ability to communicate effectively using construction language, getting out of the office and into the field, and finding the right allies were key.

Look Forward

Generally speaking, accounting teams work with data provided from events that have already occurred. This makes the department, as a whole, reactive and backward-looking. While data is incredibly important in the boardroom, knowing how to use that data to predict where the company is heading is a skill that only the best CFOs possess.

Mike Trammel of Forvis recalled a conversation he had with a construction executive on exactly this topic: “I once asked a construction owner who I had a lot of respect for. I said, ‘Tell me the difference between a construction CFO and a construction controller,’ and he gave me a real distinct answer. He said, ‘A controller is going to tell me what I should see in the rear-view mirror. A good CFO is going to tell me what my headlights are going to see when we get there.’”

Construction accounting teams that use the data provided to identify trends, establish long-term goals, and help the company find the right path to the destination in mind will earn the respect and admiration of the project team. Their ability to assess risk and develop strategies based on data and insight is something most other departments can’t offer.

And it’s these skills that separate the average accounting head from a take-charge CFO that makes decisions with the rest of the PM Team.

Speak the Language

While there are exceptions to every rule (and in fact, we’re encouraging one), most accountants and project managers don’t communicate in the same way. Their brains work differently, they use different words and phrases, and they see situations in different lights. And since we’re adapting the accounting team to work more seamlessly with project management, it’s the accounting staff’s responsibility to adapt.

Contractors and builders have a job to do. They’re not overly interested in debits or credits or how the accounting team works or handles its challenges. Truth be told, they want the accounting team to think for themselves and provide solutions that make sense in the construction world.

Jamie Tancos of Forvis told us, “One, first and foremost, you have to speak their language. They’re not going to come to you. They don’t want to learn how to talk debits and credits.” She knows first-hand, as she walked into the construction industry as a young female and had to find her footing in an industry that doesn’t like change.

Her suggestion? Adapting what the accounting team does for construction rather than attempting to change the industry. She says contractors “want you in their world and understanding the operations and how you're applying the operations to the financial side.”

Get Out of the Office (and Onto a Job Site)

Accounting teams and CFOs who want to be taken seriously within a construction company need to see the work firsthand. This means getting out from behind their desk, putting on a hard hat and a pair of boots, and visiting a job site. There, they can observe what actually goes into creating a construction project, and what those numbers on paper translate to in the real world.

Jamie had suggestions for us here, too. She believes you need to “see the cake from beginning to end.” She adds, “I got in trucks. I went to job sites. I looked at all of that stuff. I sat in a plant tower. “ The first-hand insight taught her a lot about the industry and how it works. She says “It puts more meaning behind the numbers, and if you have more meaning behind the numbers and the understanding, you’re able to look out over the front of the car easier.”

Not only does this help from an experience perspective, but it can also help the project management team recognize that you’re trying to learn more about their side of the industry. At that point, the accounting team might notice more bridges being built for them into other areas of the construction firm’s operations.

Find Help

Everyone needs a hand now and then. Accounting team members should attempt to find their help in the form of an innovator or freethinker on the project management side. If this person believes in the mission, they can help pave the way for the accounting department and foster buy-in.

Jamie says, “There's safety in numbers. So, get somebody that can be on your side and push with you, and if that's someone from the operations side, it's going to carry a little bit more clout.” 

Developing these alliances will help the accounting team achieve more in less time, help the board recognize the value of the relationship, and create a more holistic approach to problem-solving for the company.

But it takes patience. Jamie warns about going too fast, too soon. She says, “Finding that balance and finding those allies that can cross the bridge together from both sides of the house is crucial, but the other thing is you're going to get the best buy-in when you're not trying to shove everything down somebody's throat at once.”

Rather than swinging for the fences right away, build relationships with your allies and let them do the pitching for the accounting team. If they believe in the mission and the team’s capabilities, they’ll bring the accounting team forward on their own.

Blaze Your Way to the Boardroom

With the right approaches, CFOs and accounting teams can make a real impact on their construction firms. By knowing how to use the latest data to make smarter decisions with future payoffs, communicating effectively in a way that the rest of the firm understands, and seeing how the cake is made firsthand, these team members will make themselves more valuable and versatile. When the project management team faces a new challenge or has a new goal in mind, they can rely on these team members to help them make better decisions.

Posted By

Tom Scalisi is a freelance writer specializing in the construction and construction software fields. As a former contractor, Tom knows the ups and downs of the building industry first-hand. He’s passionate about helping contractors build stronger, more profitable businesses by navigating the wave of new technology revolutionizing the construction industry.