Your Personal Job Search Think Tank

Q: I’m the CEO of a small company of about 200 employees. When business is good, decisions are easy. But now that the economy is in such bad shape, being the one where “the buck stops here” is a lot more difficult.

To help decide what to do about challenging issues, it would be great to get advice from someone who’s already been in a similar situation. Do you have any suggestions about how other CEOs deal with loneliness at the top? –Craig, Chicago, IL

A: Making major decisions can be a lonely, solitary task. Maybe that’s why presidents have cabinets, coaches have assistants and CEOs have executive committees. A sounding board of trusted associates can help when it’s time to make a tough call. This is also true for a job search. Some people have a spouse, friend or colleague who can help them plot a career strategy. Most of us, however, have to deal with job interviews, salary negotiations and company politics all on our own.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. You can create your own council of job search experts. Many job seekers are joining together to form “mastermind groups,” which meet regularly to focus on solving problems and creating new career opportunities for everyone involved. The principle behind the mastermind group is simple: When facing complex problems, multiple minds are better than one.

Strength in Numbers

Consider the following scenarios commonly faced by employees and job seekers today:

You’ve been looking for a new job for several months, and finally have an opportunity at a company you like. However, the salary they’re offering is less than what you previously made, and well below the industry standard for your position. Is there a way to negotiate for more money without losing the job?

Two of the people who report to you have a personality conflict that’s getting out of hand. Both are good workers, so you’d like to find a way to handle the situation without bringing in HR or alerting any of your management peers.

You’ve been at your present employer for five years and enjoy your work, but you don’t bring many new things to your position or the company. Now your department is being hit by budget cuts, and you’re concerned you might be laid off. How can you start innovating and stand out from the crowd?

For each of these situations – and many others – a mastermind group would be an invaluable resource. For everything from polishing your interview skills to managing a small business to launching a new pr campaign, working with a group of peers can make it possible to solve even the most daunting and delicate of challenges.

So what should you look for when choosing people for your mastermind group? According to experts, the most helpful groups for job seekers and workers are ones that successfully do the following:

  1. Provide a safe, honest, supportive and non-competitive forum for brainstorming and feedback.

Other business organizations – boards of directors, professional societies and networking groups, for example – tend to only offer superficial venues for problem solving. To chart a sustained job search or change careers, however, it’s important to have a group willing to make a commitment to its members’ long-term success.

Even though participants may not see each other outside of meetings, it’s not uncommon for members of a mastermind group to become close friends. “We know each other’s biggest secrets,” says Jim Adams, a Dallas-based executive in the Insurance industry. “We share our greatest triumphs and biggest messes.” Indeed, some mastermind group meetings can be much like the late-night, no-holds-barred conversations many people had in college.

The Right Mix

To develop a good mastermind group, you’ll need to pick members you feel will contribute to a dynamic environment. Look for people who are:

. For example, a group made up entirely of entrepreneurs, or job seekers looking for work in the legal field.

. You want the truth and a variety of perspectives. Yes-people are worthless.

. If a negative remark or a new business idea gets to the wrong person outside the group, it can be devastating.

. This means being ready to offer both sympathy and solutions. Playing “ain’t it awful” isn’t the purpose of a mastermind group.

. Select team players who will forgo their egos for the benefit of the group.

. Left field ideas may have a place in a good brainstorming session, but they need to be balanced by more logical thought.

. Remember, these people will become an important part of your life, so it helps if you actually like them.

Now that you’ve got an idea about the types of people you’re looking for, how many should you invite into the group? Typically, mastermind groups with six to 10 members seem to work best — you want at least four at each meeting, but not so many you can’t easily go someplace like a coffee shop. Look to your close friends to get started, and see if they know others who’d like to participate. Once you’ve formed a core of five or six people, get together several times, then evaluate your progress.

Remember that without fail, people will drop out because they’re not a good fit, don’t have enough spare time or the group isn’t meeting their needs. It’s important to not get discouraged by this. With enough trial and error, you’ll build a steadfast membership that’s committed to mutual success.

A few additional tips to ensure a mastermind group that works:

. Unless they’re sick, out of town or have an important appointment, they need to show up. Staying home because your favorite show’s season finale is on isn’t an excuse — that’s what Tivo is for.

. Participants need to feel safe discussing any problem and know it’ll never go beyond the group.

. One way to achieve this is to poll members at the beginning to determine what to cover. This way everyone can concentrate on the same things.

. If two people are busy talking on the side, that’s two fewer minds at work solving problem.

. Keep the discussion focused on finding solutions. If you’re not careful, the group can get into the habit of telling sob stories. Save that for your therapist.

“I have no other source for business advice like this one,” says Russ Yaquinto, a member of a successful Dallas-based mastermind group. “When I call for special help, other members respond. And I enjoy contributing to their success as well.” In today’s employment market, finding a good job is a greater challenge than it has been in years. But with a strong mastermind group in place, the good news is that you won’t have to face that challenge alone.

Why scientists should take more coffee breaks

Mixing Motherhood and Science