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THE INC. LIFE

This Secret 1930s Tradition Is Suddenly All the Rage With CEOs

Mastermind groups are quietly gaining steam. Can peer mentoring solve your problems?

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BY Kate Rockwood - 11 Jun 2018

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

Xza Higgins was drowning. In five short years, her production company, Parent & Co., had grown from conducting a series of intimate, local gatherings to presenting more than 20 annual events across North America, connecting tens of thousands of parents with brands. Parent & Co. was clocking midseven-figure revenue and double-digit growth--yet Higgins still had all 16 employees reporting directly to her. "My day would be nonstop questions from direct reports, and I needed to figure out how to keep the company culture positive while getting shit done," she says. So, last May, Higgins did what many founders quietly do: She took the problem to her mastermind group.

Mastermind groups date back to Napoleon Hill's 1937 book, Think and Grow Rich, but in recent years the concept has resurfaced. The construct is simple: Two or more entrepreneurs agree to meet roughly once a month to confidentially workshop one another's business challenges and share notes on a variety of company issues. Rather than a polished networking group in which CEOs put on the brave face of perfection, it's a safe space for them to bare their vulnerabilities and shortcomings, where they can peek over another founder's shoulder for guidance on topics mundane (incentive structures) to maddening (beating out a copycat competitor).

Higgins's group--eight Chicago-based female founders--had been meeting monthly for about three years, and knew enough about Parent & Co. to help solve her problem. By September, Higgins had a new org structure in place, with zero turnover and no dip in morale. And when she needed to take a six-week medical leave late last fall, "having only three direct reports allowed me to do that--and the company still thrived," she says.

A half- or full-day commitment once a month is a considerable investment, but founders are finding the mastermind returns to be more than worth it.

1. Avoid your industry.

To jump-start growth at her Ashburn, Virginia-based kids athletic company More Than Cheer, Brittany Rose joined groups, "but there were two competitors in the same group within 10 miles of me." Rose found herself holding back some of her best tips and biggest questions. Then she sought out a mastermind group with no industry overlap. "Instead of staying in the kids athletic mindset, you're looking at problems just from a business mindset," she says. When a martial arts studio owner talked about his successful afterschool program, Rose launched a similar idea at her retail locations. "Three years later, our afterschool program is a substantial portion of our income--and growing," she says. Company revenue has doubled each of the six years she's been part of a mastermind group.

2. Seek a similar metabolism.

Joining a group that doesn't share your goals will be frustrating. "We signed up for a group that was all solopreneurs, and it was a terrible fit because they weren't facing the issues we were," says co-founder Dustin Brackett of Hive Digital Strategy, in Denver. He's grown revenue by more than 50 percent the past four years--so he joined a new group focused on growth. Collin Holmes, founder and CEO of San Diego-based Chatmeter, felt a similar frustration in a group of founders who were still in launch mode. While he addressed scaling strategy, most members were mired in basic operations. "The challenges we faced were so different, we weren't talking the same language," Holmes says.

3. Protect it under lock and key.

If you want people to truly buy in, have all members sign a mutual nondisclosure agreement and make, at minimum, a six-month commitment, says Candice Blansett-Cummins, founder and chief experience officer of Wishcraft Workshop and C'mon, Let's Rally. Holmes, who joined a mastermind group in late 2015, says, "To really understand someone's business--to be able to give good guidance and make real recommendations--could take six months, depending on the industry, the frequency of meetings, and the dedication of the founders." If there's an open-door policy, people might disappear after a few meetings, which can tank the momentum of the group.

4. Let others dig deep.

Sometimes, you'll walk in wondering how to handle a bad hire--only to learn it's how the person's being managed that has to change. That's because "members don't just brainstorm--they ask questions to get to the bottom of what the real issue is," says Leslie Grossman, who joined her first mastermind group 25 years ago, as founder of an integrated marketing firm, and now facilitates groups in New York City. "As a leader of a business, even your C-suite will tell you the things you think you want to hear after a while--that's natural. But a mastermind group asks the tough questions to make the right decisions."

5. Keep the conversation flowing.

Monthly meetings aren't the be-all and end-all, says Blansett-Cummins, who has facilitated multiple mastermind groups. Most have some way for members to stay in touch between get-togethers, such as a private Facebook group or email chain to ask quick questions, seek referrals, share relevant news, or address deeper problems. In Grossman's groups, one-on-one phone calls between official gatherings are encouraged, "because the more you get to know each other, the more you can help each other."

How to Find (or Design) a Mastermind

Ready to give peer mentoring a go?

Focus on the facilitator. As the mastermind group's gatekeeper and de facto leader, the often-paid facilitator acts as a sort of business therapist. Look for business coaches or larger organizations in your area, and ask whether they facilitate groups. "While the facilitator doesn't have to have run a business, I think you get more out of it when he or she has accomplished what you want to accomplish," says Rose.

Rely on word of mouth. Peer mentoring can feel as personal as marriage counseling, and your odds of finding a good group fit are infinitely better if you rely on personal recommendations rather than on a search engine, says Blansett-Cummins. Higgins's route to her group? Someone suggested she meet with another punk rock-loving entrepreneur, and when the duo hit it off, that entrepreneur plugged Higgins into her group.

Act like an entrepreneur. If you can't find what you need, build it yourself. "It's like launching a company--you want to talk through mission, vision, and values as a group," says Blansett-Cummins. Can people step out for pressing calls? What happens if someone can't make a meeting at the last minute? Establishing those dynamics together makes everyone more invested.

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