For all the focus today's firms put on employee education, there's still one role with no training program: CEO. According to a global survey published in April 2018 by executive recruiter Egon Zehnder, not even one in three CEOs says he or she was fully prepared for the job.
The problem isn't that executives are slow to learn or that companies don't care whether their CEOs succeed; it's the question of who will lead the leader? Outgoing CEOs have to prepare for their own futures, and board members are rarely involved in a company's day-to-day operations. Who's left?
For better or worse, most CEOs learn by doing. That doesn't mean, however, that they can't help each other out to ramp up faster and get better results.
A meeting of minds.
Three quarters of a century ago, an American born in a one-room Appalachian cabin published a book that would influence generations of business executives. It's called Think and Grow Rich. In it, Napoleon Hill introduced the concept of the mastermind group.
Mastermind groups bring together people in similar situations monthly, weekly, or even daily, to discuss challenges and tap the group's collective intellect to solve problems. They're peer-to-peer mentoring organizations whose members trust each other, swap advice, create connections and focus on collective and individual success.
Since companies typically have only one CEO, chief executives have to look outside their own organizations to find peers. When they join mastermind groups, they typically find far more than just job training.
The mastermind advantage.
Mastermind groups tend to be exclusive, expensive to join and/or geographically inconvenient. So why are they increasingly popular among company leaders and even seconds in command?
CEOs and founders are relatively rare in the broader population, and their role tends to include lots of unique tasks. As a result, few traditional schools or training programs cater to them.
Mastermind groups fill that gap by helping members with role-specific challenges. For example, Exit to Impact, a consultancy that hosts mastermind groups, brings founders together to discuss strategies for creating favorable exit scenarios.
Exit to Impact founder George Bandarian II suggests mastermind groups choose a facilitator and program to follow. "In our case, I'm the organizer. I bring together CEOs trying to exit companies with $1 million to $10 million in revenue to focus on increasing enterprise value," he says. "We follow something called the Value Builder System, which was created by the author of 'Built to Sell.'"
I am also a member of EO and have found it to be invaluable.
As it turns out, it really is lonely at the top. According to the inaugural CEO Snapshot survey, more than half of CEOs struggle with feelings of isolation, and six in 10 believe that hinders their performance.
Inspired HR CEO Debby Carreau admitted in Entrepreneur last year that her role is "much lonelier than [she] ever imagined." After searching for a "safe space to say what keeps [her] up at night," she found it in the Young Presidents' Organization. Better known as YPO, the mastermind group includes nearly 25,000 CEOs across 140 countries.
According to Carreau, YPO meetings are less like conferences and more like friendly get-togethers. The topics discussed go way beyond the boardroom -- geopolitics, philanthropy, the end of the hydrocarbon era, the sharing economy and more are all fair game.
Another challenge of CEO-hood is that nobody wants to tell the leader "no" -- that is, nobody but other CEOs. In a time when more CEOs are being forced from office for ethics violations, mastermind groups can provide a critical gut check.
John Cavendish, founder of Amazon marketing group ecomDNA and an EO member, likens mastermind groups to sports teams in this regard. "Having 'running buddies' keeps me and others in the group accountable," Cavendish says. "All of our companies have grown by 100 percent or more since I joined two and a half years ago, and I think the sense of accountability has a lot to do with it."
"I'm not self-made. I'm community made," Jayson Gaignard writes in bold, offset text directly above his signature. After struggling to get off what he calls the "entrepreneurial 'hamster wheel,'" Gaignard founded MasterMind Talks (MMT), an invitation-only mastermind group best known for its three-day networking experience and a lengthy waiting list.
The annual event, which I had the privilege to attend this year, brings together entrepreneurs with backgrounds as wide-ranging as a three-time New York Times bestselling author, a podcaster with more than 4 million downloads per month, and a manager of one of history's greatest boxers. More than 17,000 have applied to attend the event since Gaignard started it in 2013, but the acceptance rate is just 0.4 percent -- lower than Harvard's. What's more, as Esther Perel, a TED speaker who recently attended the retreat has said, MMT's connections are authentic and go beyond networking.
Executives may be at the top of their fields, but they have the same needs as other professionals -- to learn, to bond and to be held accountable. Unfortunately, CEOs and founders rarely find those things upstairs or down the hall. Many do, however, find them at mastermind groups.
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