A year ago, I brought four other advisors together to form a “mastermind group” to discuss best practices for managing our practices. Three of us are fee-only RIAs and two are affiliated with broker-dealers. There are three woman and two men, and we’re all younger than 35; two bought practices and three started from scratch.

We hold weekly video calls, but recently we had a three-day retreat in Austin, Texas. We all found getting together in person to be more beneficial than meeting by video. We planned our event for three months and found our advance planning to be especially beneficial.

PRESET AGENDA

In preparation for the retreat, we spent one video call discussing what issues we wanted to cover — and then designed an agenda based on everyone’s input. Sessions ranged from technical matters (advanced college planning, approaches for Gen Y) to a hearty debate on investment philosophy and ideas for expanding our practices. All of our sessions had set time limits, and we managed to stick to them.

I found the most beneficial session to be one on life planning — centered on a process some planners use with their own clients. The idea is to ask yourself (or the client) what you would do differently if you knew your life were to be cut short. We’d all done some soul-searching in preparation, so during the session, we discussed our personal and business goals, and examined how we were incorporating these into our lives.

Many of us left with changes we wanted to make, both in our personal lives and our practices.

RELAXED ENVIRONMENT

Before the retreat, we decided that we wouldn’t have anyone host in their home, and instead find a neutral location. We settled on Austin, and while we first assumed we’d stay at a hotel, I stumbled on a short-term home rental website that led me to a spacious house.

Not only was it cheaper than a hotel — it cost each of us about $200 for the three-night stay — but was also big enough to provide us each with our own bedroom, allowing us to spend some time alone. We were also able to break into small groups.

In this rental house, we were able to cook, watch TV, nap and work in various areas where we felt comfortable. If we’d been in a hotel and used a conference room, the options would have been limited. I don’t believe our sessions would have been as fruitful.

BUILT-IN DOWNTIME

We arrived at our house at 4 p.m. but didn’t have any sessions until the next morning. For our first night, we enjoyed one another’s company over dinner at a restaurant and continued our discussions back at the house. We had never met in person before, so this provided a big step forward in our relationships.

Over the next two days, our sessions started at 8:30 and ran until noon, when we ate lunch for an hour. We then spent until 3 p.m. discussing another topic and finished for the day. This gave us ample time to talk about subjects that didn’t make our agenda.

The group was a mixture of introverts and extroverts — some of us disappeared after the sessions for some downtime, while others enjoyed getting to know other group members. While it was great to get business and technical advice from peers, the nonscheduled time we spent together cemented our relationships.

By the middle of our third day, we were exhausted. We had scheduled a light topic to finish our time together, but we decided to forgo it for an extended lunch and shopping trip for Texas apparel.

PLAYING TO STRENGTHS

While our agenda was created based on what we wanted to learn, it turned out each of us was educated enough to run some sessions. One member who had been through life planning training ran that session; another had been in touch with an expert on mastermind-groups and helped us review our efforts. Each person took charge of one aspect or another.

This proved to be one of the most important elements of the trip. The members have varying training and expertise about planning topics (blended family issues, for example, or planning for expatriates). By using the strengths of our members in designing the sessions, we were able to share knowledge that already existed.

What made our time together so rewarding was that everyone came with no expectations but also with no reservations. At the end of our first year, we are excited to spend more time together for as long as everyone finds a benefit in the group. This could be for another year - or for the rest of our careers.

Dave Grant, a Financial Planning columnist, is founder of Finance for Teachers, a planning firm, and Fee Only Consulting, in Cary, Ill. He is also the founder of NAPFA Genesis, a networking group for young, fee-only planners. Follow him on Twitter at @davegrant82.

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