Your Personal Think Tank
Membership in a “mastermind” group
help you make better career and small business decisions
Making major decisions can be a lonely,
Perhaps that's why presidents have
cabinets, coaches have assistants, and CEOs have executive
committees. A sounding board of trusted, intelligent associates can
help ease the decision-making process and bring a better course of
The same holds true for personal career
decisions. Some people are lucky to have a savvy and discreet
spouse, friend, colleague, or mentor with whom to plot career
strategies. Most of us, however, grapple on our own with the
complexities of company politics, personal development, and small
Not that it has to be so. You can
create your own council of key advisers. In fact, for the past
three years, I've been a member of a so-called mastermind group”: a
collection of people who dedicated to each other's success, who meet
regularly to focus their energy and insight on solving problems and
creating new opportunities.
While the mastermind idea has been
around for centuries, perhaps it's best expressed in Napoleon Hill's
book, “Think and Grow Rich.” Mr. Hill tells how such industrial
giants as Henry Ford, Andrew Carnegie, and Thomas Edison met
regularly to bare their corporate souls and brainstorm solutions to
Few of us face such large-scale
challenges and dilemmas. Our own problems can seem all the more
difficult, however, because they're more personal. In any case, the
premise behind forming a mastermind group remains valid: Multiple
minds are better than one.
Strength in Numbers
Consider the following scenarios, for
example. Judging by the letters I receive, these dilemmas are
You've been toying with an idea for
a new MIS program. Your approach could be either a major boon
to your career or a dismal flop. You hesitate to discuss it
with colleagues at work because they might shoot it down-or
Two of your direct reports are
excellent workers, but their personality conflict is getting out
of hand. You'd like some feedback on options for handling the
situation, but you'd rather not involve the human resource
department or any of your management peers.
You've had your own business for two
years. You're making a small profit, but it's not enough for
the lifestyle you want. You love what you do and you're good at
it, but you wonder if you should continue to struggle or go back
to corporate America and its steady paycheck.
After a year spent cultivating a
million-dollar client, she's finally agreed to listen to your
presentation. It's got to be good, and different from your
competition. You don't think your standard pitch will work.
You've been with your present
company for 10 years. You've enjoyed your work and have an
excellent track record, but the challenge is gone. Out of
nowhere, a headhunter is pursuing you for a position with a
small, start-up firm that needs a seasoned chief financial
officer. The new position sounds exciting but will require long
hours and substantial travel. Moreover, there's no guarantee the
company will succeed. You need an objective third party to
review the pros and cons of this move.
For each of these situations-and
countless others-a mastermind group would be an invaluable
resource. I speak from experience. In the three years since a
friend approached me about starting a group, we've helped each other
(and seven other colleagues) save struggling businesses and launch
new ones, plan PR and marketing campaigns, deal with delicate
political dilemmas, take risks with new clients, determine pricing,
and set tough priorities in our professional and personal lives.
To gather some concrete advice about
forming your own think tank, I interviewed some proven experts: my
mastermind cohorts. One of the chief advantages they identify is
the group's unique method of problem solving and decision making,
Uses later vs. linear thinking.
Takes advantage of a diversity of
Capitalizes on the similarities of
many business dilemmas.
Provides a safe, honest, supportive,
and non-competitive forum for brainstorming and feedback.
Other business organizations-boards of
directors, professional societies, and networking groups-offer
relatively transient, superficial venues for problem solving. In
contrast, mastermind groups foster a long-term, intimate commitment
to mutual success. Participants become best friends, even though
they may not see each other outside regular meetings.
“We know each other's biggest secrets,”
says Jim Adams, a Dallas-based agent of New England Life Insurance
Co. “We share our greatest triumphs and biggest messes.” Indeed,
an intense mastermind discussion approaches the late-night,
no-holds-barred conversations you may have had in your college dorm
The Right Mix
To reach this rarified level, you'll
need to pick participants who can and want to achieve it. Look for
people who are:
Interested in the same things.
My group is made up entirely of entrepreneurs in small service
Independent thinkers. You want
the truth and a variety of perspectives. Yes-people are worthless.
Sensitive to the need for
confidentiality. If a negative remark or a new business idea
gets to the wrong person outside the group, it can be devastating.
Supportive. This means being
ready to offer both sympathy and solutions. Playing “ain't it
awful” isn't the mission of a mastermind group.
Noncompetitive. Select team
players who will forgo their egos for the benefit of the group.
Objective, savvy professionals.
Hare-brained schemes have their place in a good brainstorming
session, but they should be tempered by logical, rational thought.
The type of people who would make
good friends. Remember, these people will become an important
part of your life. It helps if you like them.
We've found six to 10 people to be the
ideal size. You want at least four attending each meeting, but not
so many that you can't fit around a big table and hear each other
Look first to your friends and close
acquaintances. Ask those who seem to fit best if they would like to
participate. Form a core membership of five or six, schedule a
meeting and discuss what each of you wants from the group. Get
together several times, then evaluate your progress.
Without fail, people will drop out
because their personalities aren't a good fit, they can't commit the
time, or the group isn't satisfying their needs. That's all right.
Gradually, you'll build a steadfast membership committed to mutual
Choose a meeting time, place, schedule,
and agenda according to your needs. We've settled on a couple of
hours over lunch in a private dining room every two weeks. Other
groups get together weekly or monthly. Some find eating intrusive.
Everyone agrees, however, that privacy is critical.
Group members need to make mastermind
meetings a top priority. Unless we're sick, out of town, or at
an important client appointment, we're there. Missing a meeting
breaks your continuity. Members might discuss and make major
decisions while you're gone; it's annoying to have to “catch you
Confidentiality is imperative.
Participants must feel safe to discuss any problem and know it will
never go beyond the group.
Limit discussion to one subject at a
time. We poll the members at the beginning of each meeting to
ascertain who has an issue. Then we all concentrate on it.
Side conversations are verboten.
Everyone should contribute to the conversation. Assume all
participants have something worthwhile to share.
Encourage feedback from everyone.
Keep the discussion focused on finding solutions. If you're not
careful, war stories can become epidemic.
“I have no other source for business
advice like this one,” says Russ Yaquinto, a member of my group and
president of the Southwest region for the Chester Group, a firm that
places interim management professionals. “When I call for special
help-like putting out a bulk mailing-other members respond. And I
enjoy contributing to their success as well.”