The annual reporting season is kicking off. Are you ready? We asked a seasoned annual report professional to share her top tips on how to run a successful annual report project.
When it comes to annual reports, Charlotte Bengt Petersen has been around the block, got the t-shirt, and returned for more. In her time, she has headed up annual reports, sustainability reports, and integrated reports in a wide range of industries, from finance to pharma and everything in between.
As the annual report season is now kicking off, we asked Charlotte to give us her top tips for how to run a successful project. Here’s what she told us.
Turn the process into an opportunity
If a job’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well, right? The same goes for the annual report – integrated as well as the ESG or financial variants. You have to do the annual report, so why not do it well? That means investing in a great end product and in the process itself.
I believe an annual report is an exceptionally valuable exercise for any company. It’s a unique opportunity for stakeholders across the business to come together to discuss what performance and progress look like from their side of the business. As the editorial team, your job is to create a forum where different colleagues can share their perspectives on the business and align on the bigger story of the year.
If you let the annual report be about the process as well as the product, you will not just have an annual report that tells a strong, cohesive value story about the business – which colleagues will recognise and own because they’ve contributed to it. You’ll also have created a more transparent and united organisation along the way, by helping colleagues to a better understanding of what value creation looks like outside their own team.
Get your core team in place
While you need to cast a wide net to gather information for the report, you need a strong editorial team to drive the process – a close-knit group of people with the resilience and stamina to get through a long-haul project.
This core team has to include the right roles and functions. It doesn’t make sense to have eight subject matter experts in the room. Having a team of storytellers and graphic designers won’t work either. Personally, I would be nowhere without my colleagues from accounting, sustainability, and investor relations. Nor could I do without a project manager or an intern who arranges the meetings, keeps track of chapter iterations, and makes sure everyone meets their deadlines. I also like to work with an external editorial team, as they can bring expertise as well as an outsider’s perspective to both the product and the process.
While the makeup of your core team will depend on your business and organisation, always make sure to get a good mix of number crunchers, storytellers, people with an outside-in perspective, and people who can understand and translate the reporting requirements into what’s relevant for your business.
Know your timings
The many teams that contribute to the report need to plan. So you should set your timeline early, inform them about it, and stick to it.
Having said that, on a long and extensive process like an annual report, informing is all about timing. We’re in August now, and, as the editorial team heading up the report, you should be starting to get your ducks in a row. Planning and discussing ideas for the report. But for most of the subject matter experts who will be involved, the report might not be top of their agenda at this point in time. So make sure you share information on a ‘need to know’ basis. You don’t want to create report fatigue before they’re even on board.
When it comes to colleagues contributing to your report, involve them in a workstream when it’s relevant for them. And when you do, be very clear on what you need from them and when you need it. This will keep everyone fresh and focused right up until publication.
Keep ambitions high … but have realistic expectations
At the start of the project, you and your editorial team will have lots of great ideas about how to innovate and improve the annual report. And ‘better than last year’ should always be the goal.
Get all those new ideas out in the open and discuss them. But make sure you create a parking lot for some of them at the same time. You’re not going to get all your amazing ideas into this year’s report. Practicalities and politics will get in the way. So to get buy-in, you need to be pragmatic. In my experience, an annual report is typically more about evolution than revolution. You build on what’s already there and prioritise specific elements you wish to change year on year – picking from that great parking lot.
Lighten up the process when you can
Producing an annual report is a long and difficult process for the editorial team holding all the strings. And you really don’t want it to turn into a dreary box-ticking exercise.
So keep an eye out for project fatigue. If you feel the energy dropping in the team, look to shake things up. If the sun is shining, why not have your weekly status meeting outside? Or turn your morning meeting into a breakfast social? Obviously, grab any chance to celebrate your wins, even if it’s only a small one, and enjoy the laughs when you can. Anything to break the routine and help people connect. This might be basic project management, but it’s crucial to nurture team spirit on a long-haul project like this. We’re humans, not machines, right?
If you’re new, use it to your advantage
There are actually two aspects to this – which might seem a bit contradictory, but they’re actually not if you find a way of balancing them.
If you’re heading up an annual report for the first time, it’s a good idea to keep down the level of new around you. It may sound boring, but when things start to move fast later in the year, you will really benefit from an established process that everyone understands and is familiar with.
That said, you shouldn’t be shy to use your newcomer status to your advantage. Asking the question “why do we do it like this?” might open productive discussions with experienced colleagues, And no, that won’t rub them up the wrong way. It will only show them that you care. And you may actually find that those discussions lead to new ideas dropping into that parking lot for next year’s report.