January/February 2024

From the Field: The Mutual Accountability Playbook

By Arlana Bedard

One of the fundamental premises of school board work involves the building of the school board team — a group of seven elected officials with the shared purpose of governing a school district. The Illinois Association of School Boards highlights the element of teamwork in one of its six Foundational Principles of Effective Governance: The board takes responsi­bility for itself.

Governing is challenging enough, adding the complexity of continually building a high-function­ing team can be overwhelming. Your perseverance and commitment to the team element of board work is ultimately for the benefit of your students.

In The Taking Action Guide for the Governance Core, the authors share a compelling reason for build­ing the team, stating “A shared moral imperative — a relentless commitment to the learning of all students, no exceptions — must drive the work of the board and its individual and collective action.”

Too often though, boards get “stuck,” and seem to address the same internal issues on an ongoing basis. This pattern is a symptom of the need to focus on building mutual accountability dispositions and rou­tines in the board’s practice. Mutual accountability represents the clear commitments that are kept amongst team members. It is the lever to help ensure focus, effective team behavior, and a positive team culture. These practices are developed over time. In fact, no matter where a team is in its development, it can bolster its practice.

This playbook offers an overview of the features of accountable teams, tips from the field, and sugges­tions for when things go awry.

How Do You Build a Team That Practices Mutual Accountability?
Develop a shared understanding of school board work and the rules of engagement for your board. Ensure each board member and the superinten­dent understand board governance and their respective roles and responsibilities. Be sure to regularly review board norms and protocols. Is there shared agreement? How do you know? How often do you verify? Tip: Consider an activity where each board member signs the Code of Conduct for Members of School Boards. Publish those signed commit­ments. On a regular basis, reflect on the degree to which the team has followed through on their commitments.

Build a culture of trust and psychological safety. Focus on building trust and making connections between people. Establish an environment where it is not only safe to disagree or provide alterna­tive viewpoints, but also encouraged. Tip: Have a meal together before the board meeting.

Sharpen your focus on the goals that center your work. Ensure you have compelling district perfor­mance goals that all board members agree with and understand. Shared responsibility for those goals is key. Develop a monitoring process so that the board is actively monitoring results and progress. Tip: Using a scorecard tool, review and discuss specific goal areas on a predictable and manageable schedule.

In addition to your district priorities, what are your board process goals? What areas would you like to improve as a board team? For example, how well do you seek other perspectives and lis­ten to each other? Tip: Identify one improvement area related to board processes, what success will look like, and how you will monitor yourselves.

Lead by example. The teams with the strongest accountability orientations do not tolerate fin­ger-pointing. Accountable team members start by reflecting on their own behavior and their responsibility for the issue. They are also com­fortable about doing so publicly. Tip: During a board self-evaluation session, ask colleagues to provide you feedback on something you wonder about with respect to your own behavior.

Engage in Reflection and Feedback Regularly. Establish informal and formal efforts to check-in on progress. Events like board self-evaluations are designed to provide board members with the opportunity to reflect on what is working and what is not and commit to what they would like to improve. Mine for the issues that seem to be under the surface. Address those early on to pre­vent them from festering and picking up energy. Tip: Use exit slips at the end of meetings or on a quarterly basis to provide each person with an opportunity to provide feedback on the meeting. Review results together.

What If You Still Have an Internal Issue Impacting Your Team?
What if you and your team have been thoughtful about your processes, and something still happens that breaks trust in some way, whether it is a one-time event or a pattern of behaviors? The rule of thumb is that if you spend time thinking about it off-line, it may be time to speak up. Because there is no legal mechanism to address most non-supportive team behaviors, your exter­nal options are limited and include the school board election process, public censure, or intervention from the Regional Office of Education. Most often, however, you must turn inward to address your concerns.

Consider the board’s responsibility for allowing the issue to grow. In Crucial Accountability, Kerry Patterson and his colleagues argue that accountability issues are typically not rooted in specific behavior(s), but in what happens afterwards. What are the conse­quences for bad behavior on your board?

Articulate the issue. Once you have decided to address an issue, be sure you are clear you under­stand it. Plan your conversation by using ques­tions such as: What has happened or continues to happen? How do we know? What is the impact? What may be the root cause(s)? What are alterna­tives to resolve the issue? Tip: Try to narrow the issue down to a single sentence.

Determine if and how you should respond. Prob­lems need to be addressed in a timely manner because they rarely resolve themselves and will continue to grow if no one is held accountable. Many accountability experts argue for treating issues as group problems, even if early-stage inter­ventions are focused on the individual.

A potential response continuum for addressing issues follows, adapted from The Team Handbook by Peter R Scholtes, Brian L. Joiner, and Barbara J. Streibel:

  • Do nothing (non-intervention).

  • Private conversation (minimal intervention). Oftentimes, these are called accountability con­versations. They can include the board president, superintendent, or another trusted person.

  • Impersonal group time (low-level intervention). Don’t point out the individual. Group processes problems together.

  • Private focused conversation (medium-level intervention).

  • In-group focused conversation (high-level intervention).

  • Dismissal from the group (rarely used — very high-level intervention). See previous mention of Regional Office of Education involvement.

Your objective is to identify and commit to chang­es in behavior. You may not walk away from a discus­sion completely satisfied, or even with commitments, because it may take time to get there.  Tip: Unless you are dealing with an egregious issue, start with lower levels of intervention.

Follow Up
Once you have arrived at the commitment stage, you should plan for follow up. Create a team-based action to hold yourselves accountable. Specificity is critical — assume nothing.

Tip: Consider the use of checkups and checkbacks (Crucial Accountability) as forms of follow up on action-oriented commitments. A checkup for a board is a planned, focused conversation on the action plan’s agreed-upon next steps after a specified period. Whereas a checkback is a quick, routine report out to ensure there is still movement and progress.

Go Slow to Go Fast
Building a culture of mutual accountability can help move us through the complexity of board work. The good news is that accountability (individual and mutual) skills and habits can be learned. They require intentionality, focus, practice, and patience. Consider taking the advice of Peter Senge, iconic systems change thought leader. “Go slow to go fast” to propel your team and district forward because your students are counting on you.

Arlana Bedard is Director of Field and Equity Services with the Illinois Association of School Boards.