Effectively Leading Change through Inspiration and Accountability
In my office, to the right of my desk, is a bookshelf. The first four shelves are filled with books about topics that you might expect: being an effective principal, promoting instructional improvement, and supporting students with special needs, to name a few. The bottom and deepest shelf is stacked – vertically and horizontally – with four-inch binders filled with strategic plans. If you read the titles, you – like I – might initially think that this bookshelf has most of what I need to effect change in my school for both children and adults. Yet, though I have committed in my heart to implement their key elements, I still sit in a school building where engagement is low, test scores are abysmal, and adults fight to defend what they want vs. what children need.
In my moments of reflection, I considered my strong vision and the kind of leader I have been. I thought about how aligned and engaging my PD has been, and I must admit, I am good. Many of the foundational pieces are in place, and honestly, they are solid. Yet, our school is not making the progress we need. The plans are in place, I have some of the right people on the bus, and we have worked to support our students in following our lead. However, we aren’t going anywhere fast.
And I have to admit, I am frustrated. Sound familiar?
Upon further reflection, I have had to dig deeply and think about why we are stagnant and often losing momentum. While I could spend time pointing fingers at my district, staff, parents, and even the students themselves, it is not the best use of my time. Why? Because I am the leader. And there are things within my control that can get this ship sailing, and I need to figure those out.
My reflections seem to keep me spiraling, so I have decided to think about other contexts to see if I can draw parallels about what moves people to action. When my personal trainer and I have set a goal and solidly laid a plan that includes support, what determines my/our success or failure? When businesses establish a shared vision and plan for its rollout and success, what leads to their triumph or failure? Regardless of the scenario, I keep running into two key themes: inspiration and accountability.
Whenever something is going well or a plan succeeds, these two factors are typically at play. Actually, they are not just “in the mix”; they are key levers to the successful outcomes.
When it comes to inspiration in schools, I have often expected adults to be intrinsically motivated by our bottom line: the opportunity to see children succeed and live better lives. While there are some for whom this is true, my often harsh realities push me to consider what else is needed (because clearly what I was doing was not enough for the masses, and neither was a paycheck). When it comes to accountability, I have not been a stranger, however, to holding adults accountable. Yet, there is something to be said for approach and consistency that can be improved. So, I have made a decision to move out of my negative controlling space – simply expecting adults to know and do because “it’s right”, and because it’s the expectation – to where I am considering what a No-Nonsense Nurturer would do instead.
As a leader who is consistently working to improve my effectiveness and who believes that being a No-Nonsense Nurturer is a key lever for my personal change, I know that inspiration has to come from me. I have begun to consider what might inspire people to be more passionate about our work and outcomes so that they begin to take action…on their own:
- Coach and Support to Get Small Wins – First, you must inspire by helping people experience success (this matters more than treats and rewards – though those are important as well). At their core, people want to do well. Build on this. As the leader, coach others so that they can also provide the support and clarity people need to properly meet expectations. Focus on a few foundational pieces so they can begin to see what it looks like, and so they can know that it’s possible. It works. I’ve now realized that small wins inspire people to push on and do more.
- Highlight and Celebrate Those Wins – Once others begin to demonstrate excellence (hold the bar high) in the areas of focus, even if it’s in the initial stages, make note of it. Again, people want to do well, but they also want to know that you – the leader – notice that they are doing well. Highlight and celebrate when the bar is met, and do this individually, publicly, and consistently. [Note: Often times, because we desire to inspire and have people “feel” good, we celebrate prematurely and promote mediocrity. Get clear on what needs to be true, share that, and celebrate that exclusively.]
While there are other tangible ways to inspire, these aforementioned will get you off to a great start. However, inspiration will not be enough. Just like people are not always motivated by the possibilities, opportunities, and success in every other venue, inspiration from the leader will not pull it all together. Accountability is the other essential component to leading a team to successful outcomes.
Unfortunately, the word “accountability” has gotten a bad name – not only in schools, but in society-at-large. When we hear the word “accountability” it is often associated with “courageous conversations”, “write-ups”, “checklists”, etc. While these are helpful, they are simply parts of the process of holding people accountable. When No-Nonsense Nurturers hold people accountable, however, they do so in a way that truly reflects the intent of “accountability”. They are clear, neutral, and consistent in their approach. Additionally, they follow-up and look for what they expect because they understand the importance of doing so for each individual’s success (students, teachers, staff, and admin) and for the ultimate outcome.
Model Accountability – With every goal and in every aspect of the leader’s role, there is an opportunity to first hold yourself accountable. If you’ve determined that a goal matters and is important, and want others to do the same, then your time, actions, and speech must reflect that. As in other things, when you truly lead by example, it is easier for others to follow.
Here’s an example of what this might look like. Let’s say you have a school-related goal around increasing literacy by having students consistently read and discuss high-quality texts. You could do several of the following to model and hold yourself accountable for keeping it as a priority:
- Schedule time so that your calendar has blocks/areas where you will focus on this goal.
- Use (the majority of) professional development and coaching time to support the importance and improvement of this practice.
- Incorporate high-quality texts and the strategies into admin, cohort, and team meetings to model and practice their use.
- Discuss and share progress towards the goal along the way, using weekly/monthly shout-outs (connection to incentives).
- Spend time in classrooms looking for students reading and discussing high-quality texts.
Doing the aforementioned or similar practices sends the message that you are serious about this work and its importance, and not that you only expect others to do it, but you are going to participate and lead the way.
Hold Others Accountable – Just as you have communicated the importance of the work and held yourself accountable, you must do the same for and with others. It’s important to note that while it is ideal that you are the first partaker of what you “preach”, your personal accountability does not have to be a prerequisite. The level of urgency and need necessitates the push for change at every level, so if you are beginning to hold yourself accountable while you do the same for others, that is fine. Do not allow the guilt of your imperfections to hold you back from pushing and supporting others. While leading by example is important, it is not enough.
Unfortunately, the truth of the matter is that there are people who will not meet expectations without a nudge. Holding others accountable is the way leaders reinforce and communicate how much the goal matters, and how much the people matter who will meet the goal. Because “we cannot afford to miss the goal, and because I am invested in student and adult success, I have to make sure that this goal happens and produces the desired result.” Otherwise, I am saying I do not care enough about any of those: the goal or the success of those involved.
This means that you must boldly look for movement, and address individuals when expectations are not being met. This should be neutral, immediately, and consistently done. For example, let’s imagine that during my walk-throughs (for the literacy goal referenced above), I observe a teacher who has students simply listening as she reads Romeo and Juliet. She is extracting and explaining the meaning herself and has listed the vocabulary and definitions for students to use. In this case, I would:
- Pull her to the side, because this can and should be fixed in the moment. Remember, we have a sense of urgency and this goal has been explained and is expected.
- Restate the expectation and tell her how what she is doing is misaligned to it. It could sound like, “Ms. Jones, students need to have their eyes on high-quality text and gather meaning from the words and lessons themselves through context, etc. as they read, and discuss themes and ideas amongst themselves to reach deeper levels of understanding. Right now, you are carrying the load by reading for them, sharing your understandings, and defining the words…requiring that they basically do nothing. This is not only hurting them, but it is not aligned with the expectation for how our priority should be implemented.”
- Tell them how to make the shift, as soon as possible…often right then. Example: “When you return to the class, simply state, ‘Now, I want you to read on your own, and then I will pause you to call on a few of you to explain what you’ve read, why it’s important, and a few other questions I have. Be ready to explain and defend your answers.” [There are times when the instructional shift will require more planning; however, do not allow truth to keep you from addressing that an expectation is not being met.]
- Provide next steps and follow up. “Do this for the remainder of this period and your other classes today. Then, let’s meet for 15 minutes at the end of the day to discuss the difference and why you were doing something different initially.” *Note: This is not only about helping her improve. She was not meeting the expectation and could have been. That needs to be addressed.
- Restate expectations (with the connection to purpose, where possible) and inquire about/offer support. Share why you intervened and pushed her to make the change today. Reconnect your actions to the goal/expectations and your responsibility in making sure that we, collectively, meet the goal. Clarify what is expected moving forward. “Ms. Jones, I wanted to follow up because I know it may have been awkward for you to have me interject earlier. Because I realized that you were not implementing the strategies that we have been practicing during PD and coaching, it was my responsibility to help you adjust course.” It can help to inquire about why the expectation was not being met, as this makes it a two-way conversation and provides you with some insight into her actions. However, realize that in most cases, none of the reasons are sufficient enough to explain away why the expectation was not being met. Offer suggestions for help, but remain focused on the fact that this is an accountability conversation and the teacher needs to leave knowing that you are looking for expectations to be met. “Ms. Jones, I understand that you did not feel like your students could do the reading and answer on their own. Your department chair can assist you with appropriate ways to scaffold; however, our students will never improve if we do the work for them. One of the goals of our strategy/approach is to push them. That is why this strategy must be implemented consistently by everyone, and why I am working to make sure that it is.”
- Share the plan for follow-up. Now that you have said it matters, you have got to “put your money where your mouth is”. You have got to show that this was not a one-off and that you were not picking on her or flexing that day. You have to show that you are indeed a person of your word who is pressing for consistency and willing to push through the discomfort to get there. Tell Ms. Jones that you will be by the next day to see how she does on her own and that you would love to hear her reflections – even if you cannot make it, send someone so that she knows you are honoring your commitment as best you can, but try to go yourself. If she is doing well, use this as an opportunity to inspire and encourage. If she is not doing well, but making attempts, connect her with the appropriate supports (usually someone else). If she is not making an attempt at all, that calls for an additional and somewhat different type of follow-up (more on that in an upcoming blog). The follow-up, in general, is key to pulling the thread through and showing that this expectation is important enough for you to ensure that it’s met.
Now, I am sure there are some aspects of this process that may make people feel uncomfortable, but let’s look at what has transpired as a result of holding this one teacher accountable:
- Jones’ students will have had a richer learning experience – that day, and ideally for days that would follow
- Jones changed what she was doing and provided a proof point and example for herself and the leader that it could be done
- Jones is clear about what is not acceptable in the area of focus
- Jones now knows that the leader is looking for and expecting the priority to be implemented
- The leader is now aware of support that Ms. Jones may need, and has provided direction to address it
- There is an expectation of follow up – for both parties – that will help increase consistency and quality.
- The leader also has an increase in boldness and a willingness to do this with others. This is a small win for him/her, regardless of how the teacher responds, because he/she has begun the work of holding people accountable.
The outcomes are worth it. The bottom line is that without accountability, nothing changes, and in schools, that means children lose! Weaving inspiration and accountability together helps you, as the leader, and those on your team to press towards outcomes and be supported in getting there. You can have the best-laid plans, as I did, but if people are not encouraged and held to implementing them, things will not change. These lessons helped turn my school around; I hope they will do the same for you.
By Karen Smith, CT3 Associate
Karen’s article “Truth or Consequences: A Road Map to Success” was featured in the May 2017 issue of Principal Leadership magazine. You can also read Karen’s post “Do You Care Enough to Save a Life?” on ASCD’s Inservice blog published in February 2017. In this post, Karen shares how during her tenure as a principal in Washington, D.C., losing five students to violence in one academic year prompted her and her team to take a closer look at how they could serve their students in life-saving ways.