I’ve always hated asking anyone for help, a reluctance that can be attributed mostly to social anxiety and shyness (and also, sometimes, to pride or sheer laziness). Whatever the cause, I’ve spent most of my life trying to avoid it at all costs — but as I got older, those costs got higher. During a trip abroad, I wandered aimlessly around foreign cities because I refused to ask for directions. Early in my career, I missed out on jobs because I was too stubborn to ask for recommendations. “I’m a hard worker,” I told myself. “That should speak for itself.”
Which is why it felt like such a shock to the system when, earlier this year, I decided to join a mastermind group — a small accountability group that meets regularly to talk about career goals, brainstorm ideas, ask questions, motivate each other, and get support. Journalist and self-improvement guru Napoleon Hill coined the term in his 1925 book, Think and Grow Rich, defining it as “the coordination of knowledge and effort between two or more people who work towards a definite purpose in a spirit of harmony.” It sounds kind of mystical, but despite the dubious nature of much of Hill’s other advice, the mastermind group has caught on in contemporary career and business circles.
There’s ample evidence, both research-based and anecdotal, to suggest that mastermind groups can be useful. One study, for example, found that 70 percent of people who had accountability partners achieved their goals, compared to 35 percent of people who didn’t. The Inklings was a famous mastermind group of fantasy writers, including C.S. Lewis and J.R.R Tolkien, who would meet to talk fiction, share their work, and get feedback. In his autobiography, Benjamin Franklin discussed his own mastermind group, or “club of mutual improvement,” which he called the Junto. Franklin wrote, “We met on Friday evenings. The rules that I drew up required that every member, in his turn, should produce one or more queries on any point of Morals, Politics, or Natural Philosophy, to be discussed by the company.” Once every few months, members would write and read an essay on any subject they liked.
The rules, theme, and structure of your own mastermind group will vary. You might have a writer’s mastermind group, or you might have a group devoted to work-life balance or one that’s focused on earning more money. Elisabeth Young, who owns a calligraphy and design business, is part of a mastermind for creative entrepreneurs.
“For me, a mastermind group is useful because all of us in the group are in the creative industry doing slightly different things,” Young says. “It’s really about the diversity of perspective. You can ask a question to the group and say, ‘What do you think? How does this price point feel to you? What’s your reaction?’” Young’s group consists of three other creative workers, “So I get three reactions.”
How do you get started? In Young’s case, an industry acquaintance approached her and asked if she was interested in joining a group of female entrepreneurs. “Someone set it up themselves and invited one other person and said, ‘Okay, who do you think would be an interesting addition to this group?’” Her group started at two, and each person found one other person to bring into the fold.
“I think it’s really about starting the conversation with someone you respect or admire — not a total stranger, but someone you’ve had some other connection with before,” Young says, “so you can approach them and say, ‘This could be really interesting. Let’s do a group together and think about who else we would want to be in it.’”
“The goal should be to know them as people. It’s difficult to have that level of intimacy with a large group.”
Misha Kaura, a designer and CEO of Darlinghurst Enterprises, said that when she moved to New York City from the West Coast, she hardly knew anyone, so she reached out to people online to start a mastermind group. “It’s harder to make new friends as a young professional than as an undergraduate,” she says. “So I just went on LinkedIn and started cold emailing people to join,” eventually setting up a chat on Google Hangouts. “One thing I’ve learned thus far in my career is that you sometimes have to take the initiative to set things up for yourself,” Kaura says.
Kaura’s mastermind now meets for brunch once a month to share advice. In between meetings, they have weekly phone calls and a private WhatsApp chat. Since the group first formed, several members have landed promotions, and one even scored a seven-figure book deal. “It’s amazing what you can achieve when you have amazing women around you, cheering you on,” Kaura says. “I think the most important trait of a successful mastermind group is having a diversity of opinions and being ambitious people in different functional roles or industries.”
While the rules and theme of your own group will be unique, entrepreneurial coach Mimi Brown says there are a few common elements that make up a successful mastermind group. First, these groups work best when they’re small — maybe six people, maximum. “Rarely do mastermind groups work with large numbers,” Brown says. “The goal should be to know them as people, as well as what they’re trying to achieve in business. It’s difficult to have that level of intimacy with a large group.” Plus, scheduling with too many people can become a nightmare.
Second, you want to set clear expectations and ground rules from the beginning, Brown says. “For example, how many meetings can someone miss before they are asked to leave? Determine what happens if every member can’t show up. Do you cancel or keep the session?” Determine how regularly you want to meet — it might be monthly, weekly, or even quarterly — and be up-front about the roles and responsibilities of each member. Decide who’s responsible for sending out reminder emails, keeping track of meeting minutes, or facilitating the conversation.
You might even start a mastermind group that doubles as an affinity group, a group of people who deal with similar social issues or feel marginalized in the workplace and need a space where they can consult others. Some companies organize them for employees, but you can also find affinity groups on places like LinkedIn or Meetup.com. You might find that joining an existing group like this gets you the same benefit of a mastermind group, or you might network with people you meet in the affinity group to branch off into a separate mastermind group.
Finally, the people in your group don’t necessarily have to be your friends, but trust is important. You should feel safe being open, honest, and vulnerable with everyone in the group, so you get feedback that’s accurate and useful. “[The people in my group] aren’t necessarily my best friends in life, but they’re people I value and respect as business owners,” Young says. “So it’s nice to have that place where you can bring up those types of questions and get encouragement.”
Having that place is also a reminder — one I still need from time to time — that doing everything alone makes life so much harder than it needs to be. If you can muster up the courage to ask your peers for help and feedback, a mastermind group is an immensely valuable tool to help supercharge your career. You might reach your goals on your own, but you’ll reach them that much faster if you’re part of a community designed to help you get there.