Episode 285

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It’s lonely at the top. While that’s a cliché, as agency owners we all know it to be very true. On those days when you’d sell your agency for a nickel, who do you have to confide in? On the flip side – when you land the biggest account in your agency’s history, who can you call who will be as excited as you are? Surrounding yourself with people who care about your success as much as you do is critical. No one gets owning an agency more than another agency owner. And no one gets owning a business more than another business owner. How do you surround yourself with people who genuinely understand your world and are in your corner?

Mastermind groups of various forms have been around for a long time. In fact, Agency Management Institute was founded with agency owner peer groups which are, in essence, a mastermind group. There are plenty of organizations that offer formal mastermind groups but you can also form your own. Either way, it’s essential that you have peers who will be your sounding board, tell you the truth when you don’t want to hear it, and will bend over backwards to help you succeed.

In this episode of Build A Better Agency, I want to talk to you about the value of these groups, as well as outlining several ways to ensure its success, including things to look for in a mastermind, understanding the difference between formal and informal groups, meeting structures to implement, the importance of accountability, and creating a safe space for facing crisis.

A big thank you to our podcast’s presenting sponsor, White Label IQ. They’re an amazing resource for agencies who want to outsource their design, dev, or PPC work at wholesale prices. Check out their special offer (10 free hours!) for podcast listeners here.


What You Will Learn in This Episode:

  • The value of a mastermind group
  • Four things to look for in a mastermind
  • Formal vs Informal mastermind groups
  • Models for successful masterminds
  • Ideal size of an informal mastermind group
  • The importance of accountability
  • Deal with crisis in a mastermind
  • How often a mastermind should get together
“What a mastermind does for you as a business owner is it gives you other people who have some shared experiences, some different perspective on those experiences, and also have your best interest.” @DrewMcLellan Share on X “The first thing that matters when you’re thinking about a mastermind is to be in a mastermind with people who genuinely care about you as a human being and who care about you in terms of your business success. They are committed to you being… Share on X “I have often said, the best thing about being a business owner is, you’re accountable to no one. The worst part of being a business owner is, you’re accountable to no one.” @DrewMcLellan Share on X “There’s great comfort in knowing that you can command everyone’s attention and they are willing to give you that time and attention.” @DrewMcLellan Share on X “There are times when you don’t honor the exact agenda of the mastermind but, honestly, having an agenda is probably one of the most critical elements of whether or not this is going to work.” @DrewMcLellan Share on X “The questions they ask me help me see with a clarity that I couldn’t see if I was doing it all by myself.” @DrewMcLellan Share on X

Ways to contact Drew McLellan:

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About the Author: Drew McLellan

For 30+ years, Drew McLellan has been in the advertising industry. He started his career at Y&R, worked in boutique-sized agencies, and then started his own (which he still owns and runs) agency in 1995. Additionally, Drew owns and leads the Agency Management Institute, which advises hundreds of small to mid-sized agencies on how to grow their agency and its profitability through agency owner peer groups, consulting, coaching, workshops, and more.

  • Leading agency owner peer groups
  • Offering workshops for agency owners and their leadership teams
  • Offering AE Bootcamps
  • Conducting individual agency owner coaching
  • Doing on-site consulting
  • Offering online courses in agency new business and account service

Because he works with over 250+ agencies every year, Drew has the unique opportunity to see the patterns and the habits (both good and bad) that happen over and over again. He has also written several books, including Sell With Authority (2020) and been featured in The New York Times, Forbes, Entrepreneur Magazine, and Fortune Small Business. The Wall Street Journal called his blog “One of 10 blogs every entrepreneur should read.”

Speaker 1:

Welcome to the Agency Management Institute community, where you’ll learn how to grow and scale your business, attract and retain the best talent, make more money and keep more of what you make. The Build a Better Agency podcast presented by White Label IQ is packed with insights on how small to mid size agencies survive and thrive in today’s market. Bringing his 25 plus years of experience as both an agency owner and agency consultant, please welcome your host, Drew McLellan.

Drew McLellan:

Hey, everybody, Drew McLellan here from Agency Management Institute. This week coming to you with yep, another episode of Build a Better Agency. This is actually episode 285. So we are marching our way to episode 300. I’m not sure what we’re going to do for episode 300. So if you have any ideas, I would love to hear them. Just shoot me an email because I’d like to do something commemorative and celebratory. If there’s a special guests you’d like to hear, if there’s a bunch of questions you want me to answer, whatever might pop into your little brain, I would love to hear what you think we could do to make that episode special. But nonetheless, this is episode 285. It is one of my solo casts. So no guests today. Just you and me hanging out. I got a note from somebody this fall saying that she listens to the podcast while she’s on her riding lawnmower.

So I know that I get to do all kinds of crazy things with you. I walk the dog, I’m on treadmills. I play golf with some of you. I’m on the subway. So happy to be with you however that may be and grateful that you’re here. I know how crazy busy your world is. So I appreciate you coming back week after week. So because it is my solo cast, you know that with every solo cast we announce a winner and the winner has a choice of either attending one of our workshops live or accessing one of our on-demand workshops.

This month’s winner is Rich Cannava of CSI. So Rich, you are the winner. I’ll reach out to you and let you know. So here’s how Rich one. If you have not heard this before, and if you have heard this before, maybe you have not taken action yet, so all you need to do to get into the drawing for a free seat at one of our live workshops or one of our on-demand workshops, all you have to do is go to wherever you download the podcast and leave us a rating and review. That’s it.

Then what you need to do is you need to take a screenshot of the rating and review and email it to me at [email protected]. Because when I look at the ratings and reviews, which I do, and I read them all and I’m grateful for all of them, but anyway, when I read them, the fact that your Baseballlover2020 doesn’t tell me who you actually are. So I need you to help me by sending me the review, a snapshot of the review and letting me know who you really are and then you’ll go on the drawing.

Here’s the deal. We’ve been doing this ever since the podcast started. So some people have tried this and some people haven’t, but there aren’t as many names of that hat as you might think. It’s not thousands and thousands of names, it’s hundreds of names. So you have a pretty good shot at winning and by the way, we just keep drawing until sooner or later you’re going to win. So odds are pretty good because we’re going to keep doing this podcast thing. So odds are pretty good you are going to win sooner or later. So why wouldn’t you do it? It just takes a couple of minutes and each course is about $2,000, 17, $1,800. So I say, get a free course. So if you will go leave a rating and review, but Rich, I will reach out to you.

Congratulations and we’ll find out which workshop you would like to participate in. The other thing I want to talk to you about before we get into the episode is we are excited. Excited is not even a big enough word. We are … I just cannot wait for the Build a Better Agency Summit. I cannot wait to be in a room with a bunch of agency owners, learning and sharing stories and commiserating on what the last year has been.

The conference isn’t until August, of 2021. It’s August 10th and 11th in Chicago. So we’ll all be vaccinated by then. Everyone will be in great shape to be together and to do what we love to do, which would tell stories and learn from each other and the conference is two days. It is packed. I’m talking packed with amazing speakers, great conversations about everything from getting your agency ready to sell and what are buyers looking for and what do they care and not care about to imposter syndrome, to how to build multiple revenue streams to come inside your agency to sort of level out the highs and lows that clients sometimes throw us in, to the best practices and biz dev, to the AI tools that agencies our size are using today with great effectiveness and efficiency.

I promise you, it is going to be a killer two days of content and connection. So if you’re interested, if you’ve already been vaccinated, if you know you’re going to be vaccinated by then, grab a ticket before we sell out. Go over to agencymanagementinstitute.com and the very first navigation button along the top of the website is the BABA Summit, Build a Better Agency Summit. Click on it, grab your ticket now. Like all conferences, the tickets get more expensive as we get closer to the event.

So grab your ticket now, or tickets. This is not just an owner event. This is not an event for entry level people, but anybody on your leadership team is going to find great content there that is relevant and valuable for them. So grab a ticket. There’s a discount for multiple people and I will see you in Chicago. Cannot wait. Just cannot wait. Here’s what I want to talk about today and I want to talk about surrounding yourself with excellence. I want to talk about surrounding yourself with people who care about your success, as much as you do.

I want to talk about surrounding yourself with people who are going to say, “That is the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard, Drew. Don’t do that.” So in the broader sense, I guess this episode is about masterminds, but I want to talk about them in a way that’s very different. I want to talk about them in all of the various forms and functions that they have. I’m a big fan. So Agency Management Institute, as many of you know, is founded, really it started with these agency owner peer groups, which are in essence, a mastermind group.

So 13 agencies. So, we usually have 15 to 25 agency owners, depending on how many of those agencies have multiple partners. 15 to 25 agency owners out of 13 agencies come together twice a year for two and a half days. They have multiple dinners together, multiple breakfast, lunches. Of course, we’re agency people, so drinks. So they have all this informal time to learn from each other and then they have all of this formal time, which is the agenda of the two days of meetings.

Basically that’s a big mastermind group. That’s a group of people … Some of these people have been in this group since the late 90s. So they know each other incredibly well. They can talk about each other’s staff as though they’ve known them for decades. They also have personal connections. They care about each other as people. They celebrate weddings, they empathize with funerals. They are very connected to each other in a plethora of ways. So anyway, these peer groups that AMI was founded on are big mastermind groups, but they’ve got some of the core tenants of what makes a mastermind group work.

As many of you know, if you’ve heard the story of AMI, you know that I was a member of AMI as an agency owner long before I owned AMI, still as an agency owner. So I experienced the power of that particular model of mastermind, but I’ve also been in two other masterminds that are very much more what you would think of as a traditional mastermind. One of them I have been in, I think we figured out. If you’re listening to this in real time, I’m recording this in March, of 2021.

I think I’ve been with these guys for at least 16 years. So the guys in this particular mastermind, none of us are in the same business but we all own a business and we formed this group, gosh, almost 20 years ago. Here’s one thing that you need to know about masterminds. However you think it’s going to play out, however you think the structure is going to work and all of that, it’s actually going to be different. It’s going to morph over time. We built this on purpose to be something that would last for a really long time.

So we literally have been in this mastermind group with each other for 16 plus years. These guys were the very first guys, when I had the opportunity to buy AMI. These were the very first guys that I said, “Hey, I have this opportunity. I want you to help me think this through. What are the pros, what are the cons? Do I want to do this and all of that.” So these guys have been a part of my business think tank for a really long time. I will talk to you about the differences between these groups, because as you think about what kind of a mastermind group you might want to be in, or you might want to create, I want to give you some options.

Then the third one I’m in, I’ve only been in about probably three or four years. The people in this peer group are kind of in related businesses to mine. So everybody in this peer group serves agencies, at least that’s how it started. Again, it’s evolved since then and I’ll talk to you more about that in a minute, but let me just give you the broad scope of the value of a mastermind.

What a mastermind does for you as a business owner is it gives you other people who have some shared experiences, some different perspectives on those shared experiences, and also have your best interest. So I think the first thing that matters when you’re thinking about a mastermind is being in a mastermind with people who genuinely care about you as a human being and care about you in terms of your business success. They are committed to you being successful because sooner or later, what happens in every mastermind is that you turn to these people and ask them for help or an introduction or feedback, or you ask them to hold a longer meeting because you’re having a crisis inside your business.

These are also the people that a lot of times, when something amazing happens or something horrific happens in your business, these are the people that you’re texting on a Saturday afternoon saying, “Everything just hit the fan. Do you have 10 minutes to talk,” or whatever. So, first and foremost, I don’t care if it’s an organized thing like AMI with the peer groups, or it’s an informal thing that you plan on your own, whatever it is. First and foremost, these have to be really good beings.

So I don’t care if you want to be with a bunch of people who are movers and shakers, or can make great introductions. If they’re jerks and they’re self-centered, and they’re selfish, this is not going to work for you. So, number one, they have to be really good caring, giving people. Number two, they have to be people who are willing to give you feedback, good and bad. They have to be able to call you on your own BS. They have to be able to say, “You know what, Drew, I don’t see how that aligns with your values, or I don’t see how that aligns with your goals for the year,” or whatever it is.

They have to be willing to have the hard conversations with you, because you’re going to be bringing them big challenges and big opportunities, and you need their candor. You need to know you can count on them to tell you when you are on the right path and when you are heading off to the wrong path. The other thing you need to do is you have to decide if you want people who are in your industry, who basically walk your walk. So that’s what the AMI peer groups are all about is these are other agency owners who know your life and have lived your life for a long time, or do you want people who have something else in common with you?

So is it a bunch of just business owners? Are they entrepreneurs? Do you get together with people who don’t have employees, but just have contractors? So think about who you would want to surround yourself with in terms of their experience set and their knowledge base. Then the next thing you have to do is you need to do this with people who are committed, because you know how busy you are and you know how easy it is to blow off. By the way, mastermind meetings are not an hour long. They are a couple hours or longer. If everyone’s going to get some time to talk about their stuff, it can’t be a 45 minute meeting.

So these have to be people who are going to commit to making these meetings a priority, no matter how busy they are. At AMI, the peer groups are mandatory. You show up where you don’t get to stay in the peer group. In more informal masterminds like the other two that I’m in, we cut each other a little bit of slack, but we work very hard to be present with each other. If we set a date, we work very hard to never not show up. We work really hard to be there, mind, body, and soul. So it’s not just being there physically, but it’s also being present.

So those are the things you want to look for. Now, there are some advantages to the formal groups like a Vistage or an EO or an AMI peer group and the advantages are, there’s a set agenda. Somebody else does all of the planning and organizing. Somebody else vets the members for you. If it’s something like Vistage group, they plan the meals. If it’s something like AMI, we’re booking hotels for you. So you’re traveling to the meetings. So there are a lot of advantages. The other advantage to a more formal mastermind is there’s usually a facilitator.

So you want a facilitator who has a couple of different skillsets. Number one, that they understand business and ideally your business. So again, I facilitate the peer groups because I’m an agency owner, have been for 26 years and I own AMI. So I facilitate our peer groups. Craig Barnes, who facilitates our virtual peer groups, also owner of 25 plus years, been around AMI for probably 20 years. So he gets it. Vistage groups, again, those facilitators have typically been business owners, especially trained, but not only do you want them to have knowledge because you want them to put their two cents into the meeting, they also have to be good at facilitating the group.

They have to be able to handle all the group dynamics. They have to be able to handle the politics and the emotions and all the other stuff that comes with a bigger group of people in a mastermind. On the informal side, odds are, if you’re an agency owner, my guess is you’re going to be the organizer. Why? Because that’s how you are. In the peer groups that I’m in, I’m the organizer of both of them. So I make sure we have the meetings. I make sure we know where we’re meeting. I make sure we decide if we’re going to have food. One of them is the guys that I’ve been with for 16 years, they all live in the same city that I do.

The folks that I’ve been with for three or four years, neither of them live in the same city. So we do it virtually. So then I wouldn’t have to worry about food or any of that sort of thing. Anyway, so you want somebody who is, can add to the conversation if you’re going to have a facilitator and can help you organize the details. In the informal, you just want somebody that keeps everybody teed up and doing what they need to do.

So there are a lot of structures to a mastermind, and I will tell you the masterminds that last have a structure. So the idea of just bringing six business owners together over dinner or cocktails or a lunch meeting or whatever, that sounds great that it’s informal and you’re just going to talk. But what you’re going to find is you end up just chit-chatting through the entire time, as opposed to getting down to business. So most masterminds have some way of kicking off the meeting. Typically, that’s something like just kind of like what we do in traction.

The best personal and professional best news since you last got together. So everybody goes around the circle and shares that. That just warms everybody up to sharing and talking and kicks the off and gets everybody focused on the content of the meeting. Then you can do a lot of different things. So some masterminds will allow you to have … Everybody gets about 20 minutes to put a challenge in front of the group, and everyone gives some feedback to the challenge. So it’s basically, I’m going to tell you my challenge. You can have a round of questions and then you offer advice.

Other groups will say, “You know what? There’s five of us in the group. So we’re going to divide these three hours so that everybody gets 35 or 40 minutes and you can do with what you want with that 35 or 40 minutes. So you can show us a plan. You can tell us about a problem you’re having. You can walk us through a decision you’re trying to make, and then we’ll give you feedback.” It’s much more of a dialogue than a structured conversation.

In other cases, some masterminds do a hot seat. So what they’re going to do is everybody gets a turn. You rotate it around. Everybody gets a turn and goes in the hot seat and in some groups, they share their goals for the year in the very first meeting of the year. Then when it’s your turn in the hot seat, everybody comes prepared to ask you questions about how you are getting towards your goals. So they’re going to ask you questions about your finances or your people, or maybe a product launch or whatever it may be, tied to your goals. Then they’re going to give you input feedback, critique about where you’re headed and what you need to do.

In another case, you might have multiple people sitting in a hot seat. So you have to decide how big your group is because that’s going to dictate the agenda. So I want to talk about the size of the group in a minute, but first let’s take a quick break and then I’ll be right back.

Hey there, you know I am incredibly grateful that you listen to every week and I want to make sure you get all of the support and tips and tricks and hacks that we have to offer. In every issue of our newsletter, I tell you what’s on my mind, based on the conversations I’ve had with agency owners that week. We also point you to additional resources and remind you of anything we’ve got coming up that you might benefit from. If you are not subscribed to our newsletter now, we can fix that in a flash. Head over to agencymanagementinstitute.com/newsletter and complete the symbol forum and we’ll take it from there. All right, let’s get back to the show.

I am back. We’re talking about masterminds. I think sometimes the word masterminds get a bad rap. That they’re a little self-serving or a little woo-woo and I think honestly, they can be an incredibly valuable tool for you to propel your business faster. I think of my mastermind groups as like a board of advisors. So I run things by them and I get their opinion, but I also ask them to hold me accountable. I have often said the best thing about being a business owner is you’re accountable to no one. The worst part of being a business owner is you’re accountable to no one.

So if you’re doing traction or something like that, internally, you know the power of being held accountable. If you’re self facilitating traction, my guess is that accountability isn’t as strong and as firm as it should be, especially for you, the agency owner. So that’s one of the reasons why I like surrounding myself in mastermind groups, with people who are sort of my peers. They’re not my direct reports. They don’t work for me. So they have no qualms. Believe me, no qualms about holding me accountable, about pushing me, about calling me if I’m not doing something that I’m supposed to.

That happens because we’re not beholden to each other inside the organization. So they are free to give me their real opinion. So I told you we’re going to talk about size. So I think that the size dictates how long the meeting has to be for everyone to get a lot of meat out of the meeting. So I told you the AMI peer groups, we come in on a Tuesday night, we have dinner together and then we meet all day, Wednesday, and then have dinner or go do something together Wednesday night. Meet all day Thursday, and then go have dinner or do something Thursday night.

So we’re together for like two really long days, and then a dinner. So that’s because we have 13 agencies that all have to make a presentation and share their financials and talk about their challenges and share some ideas with each other. So we need that much time. So again, remember that’s 15 to 25 people. So most masterminds are not going to get together unless it’s a formal one, like AMI, are not going to get together. So most people are going to do two or three hours.

Some masterminds, I know, go for a half a day. I know Vistage is a full day a month, because again, they’ve got more people in the room and even in that case, I used to be a member of Vistage. Even in that case, everybody doesn’t get to talk every time. So let’s assume you’re doing something more informal and you’re creating it. I think five people, five or six people is about as big as you can get. If you really want to give everybody a chance in, let’s say a three or four hour period of time to get some feedback and some direction from the mastermind group.

So you can either do the hot seat where not everybody gets to talk every time in depth about their business, or you need to really limit the size. The one that I’ve been in for almost 20 years, we started as a group of four, and then one of the guys decided to sell his business and take a job and one of our rules was you had to own a business. So he left and the other three of us decided we weren’t going to replace him. We were just going to stay with the three of us. So I think he was with us for maybe a couple of years. So for almost 15 years, it’s been just the three of us.

When we get together for two or three hours, and we have a hard time getting everything in that we want to talk about in that timeframe. So we start with everybody giving everyone an update on what’s happening. Some big wins personally and professionally, and then we divide the time up. So each of us gets that 45 minutes or so to really pick the brain of the other two people or to share what’s going on inside their business or whatever. Then at the end of each person’s time, what we say is, “What’s your homework for next time? What do you need us to hold you accountable for and how?”

So I might say, “I want to launch a new course, or I want to do something,” and they’ll say to me, “How do you want us to hold you accountable?” I’ll say, “Well, I’ll email you as I get each module done,” or whatever it is, but they hold my feet to the fire. They make sure that I actually get it done, and that’s true in my other mastermind group as well. We also complete our report or our time with a here’s my homework. Then we check in on each other. So that for me is how to think about the sizes.

It’s got to be small enough that everybody can get something out of every meeting. I personally don’t love the hot seat model where maybe I don’t get to talk about my business in depth for three or four meetings. I really want input because business moves so fast today. I want to go faster. So I want their opinion in both of my groups. I want their opinion every month. Another model that you could think about is, again, everybody checks in, talks about their best win personally and professio