How many times have you promised yourself that you’ll update your website, write that blog or sit down and do some serious planning for your business, only to find that weeks (or months) have gone by and you’re no further forward?
Client work always seems to take priority – because it pays the bills, right? But there are equally important things you should be doing, too, whether that’s working on your professional development or marketing your business.
Maybe you’ve always intended to get to grips with Google Analytics, or attend that local networking group, or read that self-development book, but you keep putting it to one side.
In the nicest possible way, you need a push.
How can an accountability group help me?
When we work on our own, or even in a small business, there’s no one to make sure we stick to our plans – how helpful would it be to know that there will be someone checking in with you to see whether you’ve done what you intended?
That there’s someone you can talk to who perhaps has done the very thing you haven’t quite managed yet, or who you can help over a hurdle that you’ve conquered?
Accountability groups are the ideal solution to feeling isolated and stuck; they can provide a safe, supportive environment for you to share your highs and lows, without judgement. The group members can give you the encouragement you need to help you move forward in whatever area you choose.
Accountability is a topic that interests me a lot as a solo business owner. Who am I answerable to in moving forward with my plans? How do I make sure that I take action, rather than populating to-do lists and doing day-to-day client work at the expense of working on my business?
At this year’s Society for Editors and Proofreaders (SfEP) annual conference I ran a session on setting up and running an accountability group, and I thought I'd share the key points from it with you.
I’m in two accountability groups, as it happens, both serving very different functions.
My accountability groups
In my editor-specific group there are six other editors, all Advanced Professional members of the SfEP, and the purpose of this group is to provide a safe space in which to support each other on all aspects of being a professional editor:
- goal setting
- sharing skills and knowledge
- continuing professional development
- running an editorial business.
I’m also a member of the Content Marketing Academy, and within the membership community I’m also in an accountability group. There are four other members, working in very different fields: photography, video editing and production, technical writing and web design. In this group we:
- focus on content marketing to develop our businesses
- provide a safe, supportive space
- share skills and knowledge
- help each other with goal setting.
How do I set up an accountability group?
First up, decide why you want an accountability group. What is it you need to focus on? If you’re in the early stages of starting up a new business then you might want a group with others at a similar stage in their business so you can benefit from each other’s experiences and provide mutual support.
If you work in a creative field, perhaps you want to start a group with others working in the same field, so that you can focus on your professional development or career progression.
Whatever you decide, it can be helpful to have common aims or be at a similar stage in your careers or business development.
Talk to people who you think might be a good fit with you to explore the idea of an accountability group without obligation.
It’s good to have a mix of experiences and different personalities, but you must feel comfortable at the prospect of sharing private and possibly confidential information with them about your business.
Some questions to consider when you’re exploring the idea of an accountability group with people:
- Do you feel you can trust them?
- Do you think you would be honest and open with them?
- Do you enjoy their company and find their views interesting, insightful and/or challenging?
You need to be happy to invest your time and energy in a group, so don’t commit unless you’re sure.
How many people should be in an accountability group?
I think between four and six is probably about right. Any less and you risk not getting the variety of experiences and input you might need. Any more and it starts to get unwieldy and there isn't enough time in a meeting to make everyone feel they've had a fair crack of the whip.
An accountability group is not about ...
- being told what to do
- being critical of each other
- knowing the answer
Nobody is going to tell you what the next steps in your business should be, but your group members will help you while you work out what they are.
You will not be thanked for negativity, criticism and superiority, so leave that at the door, or don't join a group. Constructive criticism is fine, though, when given in a sensitive and supportive manner.
Nobody has all the answers, and it isn't always necessary that anyone has them in a group. Let people vocalise their problem or challenge. Sometimes it's in the act of talking through an issue that the answer becomes clear. Be the sounding board - it's good to listen.
The relationship dynamics in an accountability group are not that of a mentor and mentee. You are all on an equal footing, working together to set goals and support each other in working towards them. Of course, depending on the nature of the goals within the group, some members may have more knowledge or skills than others in a particular area, and it makes sense to draw on that experience.
How often does an accountability group meet?
It’s up to you. You don’t want to be in each other’s faces all the time but, equally, you don’t want to leave it so long that everyone forgets what they said they’d do! Fortnightly works for my Actionlab group, and we meet virtually using Zoom. In between times we talk using Slack, the private messaging platform.
Take into consideration geography, travel time and personal circumstances. My editors' group has one member in Canada, so we work around the time zones for our meetings.
Should we meet online or in-person?
There are pros and cons for both options – what is right will depend on your group's preferences, and obvious things like whether you live near each other, or even in the same country!
Online meetings have the big advantage of making the most efficient use of everyone's time. As everyone is at their desk, or wherever their laptop happens to be, the time involved is only the length of the call itself, making it satisfyingly efficient! There are a variety of platforms you can use, for example, Skype, Zoom or Google Hangouts.
You may feel that meeting in person suits you better in terms of the level of interaction and engagement you get with your group members. To make it worthwhile, as an in-person meeting will obviously involve travelling time, you may want to make your meetings longer. The location also needs to be chosen carefully – you will need somewhere quiet and reasonably private, but with refreshments at hand. A café or bar with a quiet area may work during the day, or you may need to book a meeting room.
How long should an accountability group meeting be?
This will depend on your set-up, and how often you're meeting.
If you're meeting every couple of weeks, one hour should be enough. If there's four of you, this breaks down neatly to 15 minutes of discussion each. However, if one person needs a more in-depth discussion, it can be useful for them to have a longer slot of half an hour, and everyone else has a 10-minute slot that week.
When your meetings are less frequent – perhaps you meet in person every month or six weeks – it makes more sense for them to be longer. In a two-hour session, you could split it evenly to 30 minutes of fairly in-depth focus each, or you might prefer just 15 minutes for individual slots and then give the rest of your time over to a less structured, free-flowing conversation. It's amazing how useful this can be if you can give it the time it needs.
Useful tools for an accountability group
Here are a few tools I've found useful in my accountability groups:
What should I contribute to an accountability group?
Remember that you're not required to give people answers. It's OK to not know something, and you shouldn't feel any pressure to give advice if you're unsure.
It's your job to listen (you should be doing a LOT of listening) and help someone work through an idea or challenge by asking questions and perhaps summarising and reflecting for them to see if you've understood. And sometimes that alone is enough for them to see what their next steps are – helping people find an answer through discussion is a central role of an accountability group.
You can give people the benefit of your experience, perhaps when you had a similar challenge in your business. You can share information and resources, and even make introductions – you might know exactly the right person to help them sort out their tax bill, the best shopfitter for their new premises or the ideal guy to help plan their next advertising campaign. Or perhaps you've read a brilliant article or watched an amazing TED Talk that could lift and inspire them. It's not always about answers.
What is the accountability bit?
Once you've set your goals at a meeting, the next time you meet you should report back on how you got on.
A Google Doc is a useful way of holding the information, and everyone can add in their own results. It's easy to refer back to what you said you'd do!
In my group we have four categories in our document:
- We celebrate wins that have happened since we last met. This could be as simple as getting an overdue invoice paid, or landing a new client. Or we may have launched our new website or started a major sales campaign.
- We share any challenges or problems we're experiencing that we'd like help with
- We set our goals – these could be short, medium or long term
- We detail what we will be accountable for the next time we meet. This could be one step towards achieving a larger goal, e.g. publishing two blogs, or planning a new campaign, or submitting a tender for a new project.
While some aspects of your business development may not be tangible, it's always useful to have some things you can measure your progress by. For example:
- bringing in new clients
- increasing your fees / rates
- increasing the number of subscribers to your email
- improvements to your web analytics, e.g. reducing bounce rate
When accountability groups go wrong
A common problem is time creep: it can be so good to talk with like-minded people and share experiences with them that a meeting can run way over. And sometimes it can be one person taking up a disproportionate amount of time in the meeting.
To overcome time creep we've found it helps to have someone chair the meeting and keep things on track and moving. As this sounds far too formal for our group, we refer to this as the sexy seat! Well, whatever works, eh?!
We also use the Google Doc where we've entered our wins, challenges and goals as a sort of informal agenda, just to make sure we've covered everything that people want to talk about.
A lack of action from a member can be another problem. You may find that they're not as interested and don't appear to be as enthusiastic or as invested as they once were. Perhaps they are more distant and less engaged, and they're missing meetings or consistently failing to meet goals they'd set themself.
There may be very good and valid reasons for this behaviour. They could be having difficulties in their personal life, or they may be feeling overwhelmed or lacking direction. Reach out, perhaps via private message, to check in with them and ask if everything is OK. Say you've noticed they've been quiet, or not around as often. They may appreciate the chance to explain, and an honest conversation may be the boost they need to ask for help or rethink some of their goals.
We all face problems and challenges. Trust your peers to help you.
Over to you!
An accountability group is a useful tool that you can put to good use for your professional development and to achieve your business goals.
Whether you're part of an established group or you're thinking of starting one, I'd love to hear about your set up and your experiences. I'm sure there are as many ways of running an accountability group as there are groups!
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