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What's the difference between executive coaching and a mastermind?

Updated: Oct 10, 2023

And how to decide which one is right for you

Photo of a lightbulb laying on a wooden table signifying the creative energy of founders, owners, and CEOs who need to be connected to have their best ideas.
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There are lots of different ways to get help and insight while building a business. I've written a three-part series about the differences between coaches, consultants, and contractors.

Recently, I've been in several conversations that have focused on masterminds. Here are some of the questions people have when they're working to understand what a master mind is and whether or not it is right for them:

In this post, I'll share some thoughts on each question.


What is a mastermind?

A mastermind is a group of people who gather together for support, accountability, and knowledge sharing.

Groups can be as small as two or three people. When the group size is higher than seven or eight, the feeling of the group can change. Those who tend more to introversion can often fade into the background and their contributions might be lost without someone actively working to get them to speak up.

People who start mastermind groups usually look for interesting people from whom they'd like to learn or get advice. There's a lot of variation in where a mastermind group will focus. For example, participants might all come from a particular industry or focus area. In other cases, the mastermind organizer(s) may decide to intentionally gather people from completely different professions. The group's members reflect the purpose and goals of the mastermind.


How does a mastermind work?

Most masterminds start with a person who invites a few others to meet on a regular basis. The cadence of a mastermind depends on the goals the members have for their participation.

Some, like study groups, meet weekly for a defined period of time (like a college semester or for the duration of an online course). In the case of busy senior executives, their mastermind participation might be defined as a two or three day annual retreat with other executives. The meeting schedule and duration should match the commitment and the needs of the group's participants.

In the early days of a mastermind, it is helpful for one person (or a small number of people) to act as an organizer. This will often be the original one or two people who decide to start the group. As new members join, some of them may choose to help with the administrative aspects like scheduling meetings, inviting guest speakers, setting agendas, finding locations, creating social event activities, and other helpful tasks.

There are many different ways to run a mastermind. For example:

  • "Hot Seat" - individual members of the mastermind present a current challenge in their business and receive feedback from other members.

  • Expert presentations - recognized experts from within the group or outside the group share knowledge and insight around a particular topic.

  • Open forum - mastermind members discuss general topics such as new things they've learned, books they've been reading, and situations they've encountered.

Some mastermind groups alternate between learning and social events.

There's really no limit to the kinds of activities available to a mastermind group. The main thing is that the activities support the purpose for which the mastermind exists.


When is a mastermind group helpful?

A mastermind group is most helpful when you are looking for a group of people who can encourage, educate, and even inspire you. They're a great place for professional support and interaction like networking and referrals. A mastermind group is a way to maintain a deeper relationship with people who may share your profession or be in different industries but share a common interest. If you're dealing with a challenging business situation, members of a mastermind group can be a valuable resource for getting a wide range of ideas and opinions.


How is a mastermind different than executive coaching?

Executive and leadership coaching is usually a one-on-one experience. An executive coach is focused exclusively on you, your goals, and your challenges. In a mastermind group, the direction of a meeting depends on the needs of the group more than the needs of any one participant.

A personalized experience

If a mastermind session focuses on a specific participant - in a "hot seat" format, for example - the next session will likely focus on a different member. Depending on the number of members and how often the mastermind meets, there could be several weeks or months that pass before a member will be on the hot seat again.

An executive coaching engagement focuses on one participant every time. It provides the opportunity for deep work on particular goals or challenges that might require more time than you would receive in a mastermind group session. If you're meeting with a coach for a focused period of time (e.g., weekly meetings), you'll have the opportunity to break the work into smaller parts that are more manageable.

A more safe place for exploration

Executive coaching is a safe place for leaders to be open about their challenges in ways that can be difficult in a group setting. When a mastermind includes networking, there is often social pressure and tension on the members to "know their stuff". There's nothing wrong with being confident - in fact, that's part of what helps executives be successful.

A key difference between a mastermind group and individual executive coaching is the ability to let down your guard and explore solutions to not knowing all the answers. An experienced executive coach understands the challenges of leading a growing team and holds your reflections and struggles in complete confidence. That's possible in a mastermind group but with more people comes more risk of being exposed. That's why many executives hold back in what they share during group meetings and calls. An executive coach helps you create a clear and safe space to dig into your biggest goals and fears.

On your time schedule

Executive coaching is different than a mastermind because there are fewer participants and therefore less scheduling challenges. While most coaching engagements happen at regular and mutually agreed times, we all know the executive's calendar can be a fluid challenge. A mastermind group and executive coaching are both commitments - you get out of them what you prioritize putting in. However, when unavoidable scheduling conflicts arise, most executives skip the mastermind group. With a coach, there's more opportunity and less effort for re-scheduling when the need arises.


How can I decide if a mastermind or executive coaching is right for me?

A mastermind group might be a great choice for you if you:

  • are looking for a group setting,

  • want various different topics and formats, or

  • prefer to be able to attend or skip based on your schedule.

Executive coaching might be a great choice for you if you:

  • have big goals,

  • want a personalized focus,

  • are willing to be very open about where things are difficult, and

  • are open to being respectfully challenged to think differently about what you can do next.

Consider attending one or more mastermind groups to see how they work and whether or not they'll be a good fit for you. It is also a good idea to attend a few meetings before joining a group.

Similarly, interview one or more experienced executive coaches. Most coaches will offer a no-cost, complimentary coaching session to prospective clients who are seriously considering the investment in executive coaching.

Since a mastermind group and executive coaching are not the same thing, you might not have to decide between them!


I'm an executive coach. I also participate in at least one mastermind group. If you're considering either option, I'd be happy to share my experiences with you. Call 919-925-0784 and leave a message so we can schedule a time to chat.

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