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Learning usually comes from a person in a higher position, through mentoring and coaching, or from our own solitary reading and investigation. But a lot can be learned from peers if you have the good sense to establish a “mastermind group.”

These are increasingly common among entrepreneurs and consultants but can be created whatever field or position you occupy. One fan is consultant John Spence, who started his first in university when a professor suggested recruiting a study group. Mr. Spence would stand up on the first day of class each semester and invite anyone who wanted to do well in the course to join his study group – as long as they had an A average. It changed everything for him, as he went from previously failing out in his first try at university to graduating in the top three in the United States in his major.

He has been creating such groups ever since and currently is in two, one of senior business leaders that gets together to talk about cutting-edge ideas – “this group has all become very close friends and I know that whenever I need help they are on my team,” he says − and another of consultants, authors and professional speakers in which they share contacts and client referrals as well as general tips.

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Here’s some of his suggestions for how to build one of your own:

  • Although some successful groups meet by phone or over the internet, he believes the most powerful ones meet in person, once a month or every 45 days. Start by looking around your community for one or two people who you respect and would enjoy learning from. Approach them to see if they will help form a mastermind group that will be highly focused and a valuable use of their time.
  • If someone accepts your invitation, ask them to similarly approach one or two people they respect and can learn from.
  • The goal is to have six to eight people at your first meeting. At that session you should take some time to discuss the expectations people have and a framework to satisfy those needs. “Structure is important to running an efficient mastermind group so you should set some rules around how often you will meet, where you will meet, attendance requirements, topics to be covered, length of meetings, confidentiality, and other issues you deem important. There should also be some discussion around how to invite new people to join the group and what the process will be for deciding that someone should leave the group,” he writes.
  • In his groups, typically a single question is asked prior to the meeting and everyone is expected to come prepared to discuss it. An example: “What are the three most important lessons you have ever earned in your life?” Sometimes they all read a book and discuss what they feel were the most important points and how those can be applied to their own lives. “Other times we allow one of the members of the group to bring a specific challenge they are facing so that all of us can give them our best advice and connect them with anyone in our networks that we feel might be able to help them,” he says.
  • If the group is successful, others will likely want to join. He recommends not growing beyond a dozen people, which means most meetings will wind up with eight to ten people. If you grow beyond the size, focus is lost and you end up with cross- conversations.
  • He hosts meetings on his back deck, with light hors d’oeuvres and cocktails. Sometimes groups shuffle between different members’ homes. Entrepreneurs often gather over breakfast as well

One of his biggest lessons in life have come from the experience of being in such groups: “You become what you focus on … and like the people you surround yourself with.”

Questions (and answers) about tough job-interview issues

The 20-member team at careers site The Muse has together attended a few hundred interviews as applicants over the years, and so recently gathered to compile a list of the toughest issues they have faced, along with solutions. Here are some:

  • What time should I get there at? Arrive about 35 minutes beforehand, since you never know how traffic or transit may work against you. Then sit in a nearby coffee shop or the lobby to gather your thoughts before formally arriving at the office five minutes early.
  • What shall I do if I’m sick? Act early. If you’re not feeling well on Wednesday and it’s likely to linger, don’t assume it will be better by Friday. Call and ask for a better time. If you wake up the day of the interview and feel a little weak, consider if you could push through a presentation or whether you would be foggy. “If you won’t be able to make a good impression, e-mail as early as possible. Try to schedule an alternative time by offering your availability, and make sure it’s more than a day away so you won’t have to call if off again,” they advise.
  • Should I reach out immediately for a handshake or wait for the interviewer? Reach out. It shows you are friendly and assertive.
  • Where shall I sit? After shaking hands, etiquette expert Nancy Mitchell recommends standing behind a chair until invited to sit down. Or you can ask politely where to sit. If there’s an interview table, don’t put personal items – brief cases, handbags or phones – on the table. Place them under your chair or on a chair beside you.
  • If I’m at a meal, what shall I order? Casually ask the interviewers if they have been at the restaurant before and what they think are good options, which will give you a sense of the appropriate price range. Or try to have the interviewer order first and choose something at that price point or less. Stay away from massive sandwiches and other things that are difficult to eat. “And put down the drink menu − even if your interviewer orders one, you should stay on your best behavior,” they write.
  • How much time should I talk versus listening? They want to hear from you but it should be a conversation. If you tend to ramble, try limiting yourself to one thought or idea at a time and then stop

Test whether you’re a work addict

The Bergen Work Addiction Scale uses seven basic criteria to determine if you are a work addict. For each, score whether your tendency is never, rarely, sometimes, often or always. If you answer often or always on at least four, you are probably in the danger zone:

  • You think of how you can free up more time to work.
  • You spend much more time working than initially intended.
  • You work in order to reduce feelings of guilt, anxiety, helplessness and depression.
  • You have been told by others to cut down on work without listening to them.
  • You become stressed if you are prohibited from working.
  • You de-prioritize hobbies, leisure activities and exercise because of your work.
  • You work so much that it has negatively influenced your health.

Quick hits

  • When editor-author Greer Henricks dreads a task, she reminds herself the only way past it is through it .
  • When somebody gives you a hint take it, says entrepreneur Seth Godin
  • Women wearing heavier makeup are less likely to be seen as leaders, research shows.
  • Eye-tracking data show online viewers scroll more than they did two decades ago. But they still tend to spend 74 per cent of viewing time on the first two screenfuls, research by the Nielsen Norman Group shows.
  • Alberta consultant Mike Kerr suggests establishing a buzzword jar at work to encourage more straightforward language. Create a list of 10 overused acronyms and buzzwords; anytime one is used, the person contributes to the jar, with the money being used for some agreed team social purpose.
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