Need a sounding board on a business problem or planning issue? – Get some insights from your peers by joining or creating a mastermind group. Here’s a look at how advisor study groups form, function, and can benefit you. For most of us, the idea of a “study group” conjures up images of high school or college students sitting around a table, preparing for an upcoming exam or perhaps working through a difficult assignment together. However reality proves out that study groups are very relevant in many professional services industries. In the world of financial advisors, the purpose of study groups is not necessarily about “academic” study, but more commonly used for practice management and career development issues. As advisory firms grow and business issues arise, advisor study groups are becoming more popular, although with their bent towards advanced concepts and topics they are perhaps better dubbed “mastermind” groups instead!

In this article, I examine the phenomenon of advisor study/mastermind groups, how they form, what they actually do, the requirements that are usually involved, and the benefits of participating. If you’re already in a study group, this will hopefully provide some ideas about best practices, and if you’ve been looking to create a mastermind group, feel free to share in the comments to find some like-minded peers to form one!

So, what is an advisor study group? – Given the flexibility and unique nature of groups in general, there really is no consistent definition of an advisor study group. Fundamentally, an advisor study group is simply about a group of advisors who come together to meet on a regular basis to discuss, analyze, and come up with solutions to the many challenges they face. In practice it seems that most financial advisor study groups focus more on practice management and personal career development rather than discussing technical financial planning tools and strategies. In fact, such groups are sometimes dubbed “mastermind“ groups in recognition of the more advanced concepts and focus—typically going far beyond just studying financial planning topics and strategies. For example, some advisor study/mastermind groups might talk about the challenges occurring in their financial planning business. Others even require all members to openly share their business books, creating a level transparency that makes it feasible to discuss even the stickiest of business issues with the group—and have group members analyze and constructively critique your business decisions! Though notably, the focus does not have to be solely on the challenges of owning a business. There are also study groups that share investment ideas across investment teams, some that bring together operations managers to discuss operational issues, and some that form amongst advisor employees to discuss their personal career tracks and how to advance themselves.

How do advisor study groups form? – While some study groups may form locally to analyze technical planning issues, most study groups that focus on business and career issues seem to be geographically distributed across the country. The reason, in large part, is because it can be awkward to discuss issues like staffing problems with a local competitor who could actually then poach your members, or to discuss marketing challenges with a firm that is pursuing the same target clientele. Since most advisory firms are confined to their local geographic market, a nationally-dispersed study group generally eliminates any risk that the firms will feel like they’re competitors. Given this dynamic, most study or mastermind groups form through connections and relationships made via joining professional associations, such as Advocis and getting involved as a volunteer or by attending national conferences (which provides the opportunity to meet nonlocal advisors), or by seeking out such connections through the advisor’s custodian or broker-dealer.

As the advisor’s personal network grows, and he or she meets more and more advisors who are at a similar point in their career and business, the core membership for a potential study group emerges. Reality is that it is generally the similarities that drive the group formation. I find most are created and populated specifically by people who found themselves in very similar circumstances, and as a result are seeking out others facing similar challenges to gain insight, ideas, and a supporting community.

Some groups, as they form, will go so far as to make very specific participation requirements, such as that the advisors have a: Certain number of years of experience (e.g., 10+ years, or <3 years) Specific role (e.g., partners, advisors completing a succession plan, operations staff, etc.) Particular business model (e.g., fee-only, monthly retainer, insurance-based) Specific amount of revenue (e.g., only those with at least $500,000 of gross revenue, or no more than $200,000 who are trying to cross that line) Certain size of business and staff (e.g., only those firms who have at least two partners and five staff) The idea with all of these requirements is to ensure that all the advisors of the group are at a similar point in their career and face similar challenges by which they can learn and share with each other.

Once an advisor study or mastermind group forms, what does it actually do? – It varies depending on the group, its members, and what they’re looking to accomplish and gain from each other. Let’s map out the possibilities: Most study groups will create a message board or email listserv for themselves (e.g., using Google Groups for an email list, or by creating a Google+ Community or a private LinkedIn Group). This forms the hub for (private) group communication.

Next, most groups establish some kind of meeting process. The meetings might vary from gathering in person once or twice a year at a central location (e.g., at a hotel, at a member’s house or office, as an extension to an existing conference they’re all planning to attend anyway, etc.), to doing monthly or quarterly conference calls, to doing a weekly Google Hangout video. Agendas for these meetings will vary by format, but typically involve one or several study group members bringing a business/career/client challenge to the group to share openly, and receive candid feedback, constructive criticism, and group wisdom. Some groups have a specific rotation where each person shares (e.g., for one hour each at an in-person meeting, or to focus on one member’s business each conference call), while others may simply keep the floor open for anyone who wants to bring up a recent client or business issue. Some study groups will occasionally bring in an outside expert to share as well. This may be via participation in a group conference call, or even bringing an outside expert to speak to the group. Some groups will invite certain expert vendors or wholesalers to speak to the group as well (especially if the group includes larger firms that may be prospective clients for the vendor or wholesaler’s company).

In one group I know, they decided to vet rebalancing software packages for the entire group by assigning each member to do due diligence on one solution and present it to the group. The group then voted for the leading two vendors that would make final presentations to the group and members could decide for themselves which software package they wanted to implement in their own practices. For a few of the largest and longest-standing study groups, the group actually becomes a platform to engage in thought leadership for the entire industry, as has been done by famous industry study groups like Zero Alpha Group, and the Alliance for RIAs Study Group. For many others, the purpose is simply focused solely on the members and their own success. Requirements to participate in an advisor study group While there aren’t a lot of requirements to create and/or participate in an advisor study group, without a doubt the key starting point is that it’s absolutely essential that the groupmates trust each other—or have the opportunity to bond and connect enough to trust each other. If the study group participants don’t feel they can openly share and communicate, most of the value of the advisor study group disappears. In some cases, study groups will even require that members sign a confidentiality or nondisclosure agreement for what is discussed in the group, while others it’s simply part of the acknowledged code of conduct (but not a signed obligation). Generally, most study groups will need at least one person to be the organizer and driver to get it started, especially in the beginning in doing outreach to prospective members, and creating a means for group members to communicate (e.g. creating a message board). For groups that meet in person, there are some additional organizing responsibilities necessary. For some study groups, that may be done by one person in particular (and/or with support from staff), while others rotate the responsibility. Still others require members to contribute some dollars into a common pool that is used to cover everything from administration to software to the facilities for the group meetings themselves (or in some cases, to pay an executive director to handle those tasks!). Most groups also have—or end up creating—some process to add and remove group members. Generally, most groups only ever add a member based on the unanimous agreement of the group, because if there’s not comfort from everyone about a particular member, the group communication can be significantly damaged. Most groups, once formed, will add or change members relatively infrequently, although in some cases a problematic member may be removed and replaced, and in other times a member simply decides that the group is no longer a fit and decides to move on, and so is replaced. Anecdotally, study groups seem to vary in size from a minimum of about five members to a maximum of around a dozen. Too many more makes it difficult to communicate effectively, and for everyone to get a turn sharing their challenges.

Benefits of joining an advisor study group: So what is it about advisor study/mastermind groups that makes them so popular? – Ultimately, it comes down to the benefit of having a group of professional peers with whom you can be completely open and transparent, to receive the kind of feedback and advice—whether it’s constructive criticism or a friendly push—that’s difficult to deliver until all the facts are on the table. In practice, many advisors I know are so engaged with their study group that going to the group gathering(s) is their can’t-miss meeting of the year. (It’s also true that to ensure continued group intimacy, some study groups require a high level of ongoing attendance and participation.) While sometimes the study group “breakthrough” is simply how to implement a particular advanced-planning strategy, personally I’ve known advisors in study groups to tackle issues ranging from leaving a job or firm, to firing a key employee, to negotiating a succession plan (as either the buyer or the seller), along with various other big business or strategic career changes. For one advisor, his study group was the support he needed to break out of a business partnership that had turned sour. For another, his study group was where he first raised the awkward issue of how to manage his business going forward if he divorced his wife for cheating on him—an especially difficult issue given that she was also the current office manager! In other words, the reality is that for many successful study groups, it really is more about a “mastermind” group to advance your business or personal career, and the name “study group” alone can understate the significance of personal breakthroughs that can be achieved by having a group of like-minded peers who can provide the crucial feedback really needed to move forward.

Please “Like” this post if you found it interesting so that others can find it. I’d love for you to add your comments about your experiences and/or questions about creating or managing your own Advisor Study Group.

Larry LaRose writes regularly at www.pnlcoaching.expert and can be contacted at info @ pnlcoaching.expert

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