I love collecting food recipes and learning secret ingredients from family and friends. When it comes to breakfast, pancakes are the top choice in our house. Recently, I did not have enough buttermilk, which all pancake aficionados know is the key ingredient. Luckily, a neighbor shared her secret ingredient: lemon juice or vinegar. The acidity in lemon juice or vinegar transforms milk into buttermilk. It saved our morning.
What's all the fuss with pancakes and secret ingredients, you asked? As finance professionals, we all know the annual planning process is right around the corner! And, you’re going to need a good breakfast and maybe a secret ingredient to deal with the frustration and long hours. But what if there was a secret ingredient, just like my pancakes, that could make the process more efficient? Here’s mine: a planning calendar.
It’s so obvious that you’re probably shrugging your shoulders, but hear me out. I’ve got scars from previous planning cycles that were a disorganized mess. It doesn’t have to be that way. Here’s what you need: a simple, ready-to-customize calendar template that I’m sharing, along with my top suggestions to put guardrails on this process and change your approach to budget season starting today.
Why Use A Planning Calendar?
I know it’s not an original idea. You may have even tried one already, or you know you need to. Maybe it didn’t work very well the previous times you tried. But the planning process needs planning. It already has so many moving parts, which is why you need guardrails to keep yourself and stakeholders on track with clear expectations and communication.
The date of the board meeting isn’t moving. Let’s say it’s in February. Work backwards from that and set smaller checkpoint deadlines along the way to the end goal. Your pre-read to the board is your ultimate goal post right now. Your plan has to be ready, otherwise there will be negative impacts to the business.
Will the process be a chaotic marathon of 23-hour work days, or will you prepare ahead to rally the troops and get their inputs on time?
Anticipate & Communicate With Stakeholders
First, you need collaboration with all departments to help you build this plan & get it ready on time. With the calendar template in hand, ask other executives, ‘Hey, does this look like there’s enough time for you and your team to work together with us and come up with a plan?’ Then deadlines are set that everyone has agreed on.
Speaking from experience, you do not want to get to December and realize that your Head of Sales is out of town for two weeks. I’ve had to reach out to a business partner on their family vacation and trust me, that was not a very pleasant call!
Imagine instead that you establish your planning calendar and can say, “Ok Head of Sales, I see you’re out that week. I’m going to need to get on some calls with you beforehand.” Set that expectation a month or two early, and the same executive is more willing to make it work. (Start laying the groundwork of strong relationships with your business partners to make these interactions smoother.)
The Process at a Glance
The details of your fiscal calendar will vary, but let’s assume a planning process that spans from August to a BOD meeting in February. Here’s your timeline at a high-level:
Your finance team receives topline guidance from the executive team on the corporate goals for the upcoming fiscal year. Now it’s time to create different scenarios based on the target, and a plan for the business that includes every department. Next, plan your kickoff meetings to share goals and targets with each functional business leader.
September - January
It’s time for your meetings and discussions with the business partner from each department to discuss their part of the plan. These functional business meetings are iterative by nature. Your finance team works together with other business units to ensure tight collaboration and keep teams working in their target, tackling both expense planning and workforce planning to support the top-line goals.
Can you get away with only two versions? Probably not, but the version 1 and version 2 lock-in dates in the calendar template are designed as a pause to put pencils down so you can roll up the plan, review, and make your adjustments. At some point you have to stop iterating, and prevent you from getting to version 35! Generally, share with your C-suite for a soft sign-off around the OP1 deadline.
The Q4 Conundrum
The reality is that planning season and Q4 will overlap for many organizations. It’s hard to start your plan for the next fiscal year when the biggest quarter of the year is still happening and results aren’t finalized. Your team has to do its best to accurately forecast Q4 so that your YOY numbers make sense. The key here is to keep your process and your plan agile enough to make the necessary course corrections. With a modern FP&A tool where you and your team can make updates and modify assumptions in a systematic manner, you’ll have more support to deliver the plan on time.
It’s meeting time! Be sure that your C-suite partners are aligned and have signed off on the version that is going to the board. Pre-read your plans to the board of directors 24-48 hours before the meeting so they have an understanding of what they can expect. They can focus and direct their questions to appropriate areas. Bonus – it shows that your team is prepared and confident.
Be consistent in how you report and share the story of the data. Support comprehension with consistent font use and formatting, and use appendix slides to provide additional context for the board.
The Day After
It’s time to take a deep breath, celebrate with your team, and then go take a nap! But I think you’ll admit that with a planning calendar to guide everyone, it was nothing like the chaos of previous years!
Don’t Leave This Up to Fate
A rigorous planning calendar is a secret ingredient, but it’s not a cure-all. This process will always be your team’s biggest and most time-consuming event of the year. But imagine the difference it will make to be well-prepared and have the built-in margin to roll with the punches as they come. Plus, it’s your chance to establish yourself as a leader and orchestrate success for the whole business through strategic FP&A, earning finance some well-deserved trust and praise.
Need a simple place to start? Check out my free FP&A Annual Planning Calendar template to start plugging in your dates and get organized.
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