“Someone I loved once gave me a box full of darkness. It took me years to understand that this too, was a gift.” 

As Mary Oliver, Pulitzer Prize-winning poet points out, it can take time for us to see the gifts hidden in a box of darkness. If Italy is any measure of what might be in store, we could be in for some very dark times ahead. 

We are in unprecedented times. In times like this, entrepreneurs are often faced with two seemingly contradictory challenges:

1. Exude trust and confidence to grow your business. 

2. Demonstrate vulnerability to build trust and confidence. 

Too much confidence and you can come across as arrogant. Too little vulnerability and you might struggle to demonstrate confidence and trustworthiness. It is a difficult bind in which entrepreneurs often find themselves. 

When some businesses will not survive, it is important to pay attention to the things that really matter. 

I have not been in a social setting where I ask, “How is business going?” and the response is, “We are barely making payroll” or “I think we have a two-month runway.” People do business with you because they trust you will be there to serve them. If you share too much, then that can erode trust. Yet, if you hold too much in, you can erode yourself. Out of a fear of being too vulnerable, successful entrepreneurs and professionals have committed suicide. The pressures of managing the image of success can become too great. One of the things we must address is the stress that entrepreneurs will face as they navigate the waters ahead.

In times like these, it is important that you draw on your social capital, the strong relationships you have in your social circle to share your most vulnerable moments. In our business, we coach high performing entrepreneurs. The entrepreneurial journey is fraught with low points. One of our clients attributes her ability to survive a difficult divorce and manage her business to the coaching she received during that time. We have coached countless entrepreneurs through difficult times. What we know is that you do not have to go it alone. In fact, it is during tough times, that we should reach out and ask for help. 

In the best of times, our decisions are mostly driven by emotions. During difficult times, our emotions are in overdrive. Having a community of people you can turn to is always helpful. Here is the paradox again. In order to ask for help, you need to first admit that you need advice or counsel, and that takes vulnerability. In our experience, both in our study groups and one-on-one coaching, people who seek perspective on their perspective ultimately outperform those who try to go it alone. In our work, we often say, “you have to do it yourself and you cannot do it alone.” 

Success in life is based on building strong relationships. You can think about strong relationships with your clients as creating what The Covenant Group refers to as Client Capital. Client capital refers to the extent to which your clients are invested in your success and, as a result, when you make a mistake they are willing to forgive you. They know they can lean on you in difficult times and you feel like you can lean on them. Client capital appears nowhere on your balance sheet, yet it is perhaps the most important aspect of your business. 

Few of us will be able to avoid tough times in life. During tough times it is the client capital you have built that yields the most rewards. Take for example a conversation I recently had with a client. Let’s call him Tony. I was explaining to Tony, that in times like this people usually employ two strategies: 

1. Focus inward: Focus on their own needs and wants.

2. Start from the outside in: They develop a strategy that starts with how they can deliver the best value to their clients. 

Tony does a lot of work in China and he explained that he is seeing the aftermath of those two strategies as China emerges from COVID-19. He explained that his clients who went into scarcity and survival mode focused on cutting costs and layoffs. These clients are struggling to get back into the game. His clients who started from the outside in and focused on delivering value to their clients and employees, they are seeing opportunities emerge that they could never have predicted. 

When you focus on building client capital, the payoffs can be immeasurable. In times like this, it is easy to get caught in a scarcity and survival mode. It can be difficult to break our tendency to focus inward. Now more than ever, we need to start from the outside in. Think about what you can do that would be most valuable for your family, friends, clients, and other people in your social circle. 

Some of the things you can do are: 

1. Seek and give advice or counsel: When our emotions are high, the limbic part of our brain takes over. Having a community of trusted advisors, a mentor or a coach can help to improve your decision making. Create a group, find a mentor or coach. This can be formal or informal. Make no mistake, no one who is successful does it alone. 

2. Create client capital: This is best achieved by starting from the outside in. Focus on what your clients need. Client Capital appears nowhere on your balance sheet, income statement or cash flow analysis, yet it is perhaps one of the most critical determinants of success. 

3. Be appropriately vulnerable: Vulnerability is not the same thing as oversharing. One way to build trust and credibility is to share some of your most touching moments. Be strategic with what you share and do not share anything that can cause people to lose trust in you. 

4. Embrace constraints: David Ogilvy, founder of Ogilvy advertising agency, is often quoted as saying “Give me the freedom of a tight brief.” Constraints give us freedom to explore. There is a famous study of playgrounds where researchers found that when there was no fence, children played close to the middle and stuck together. If, however, you added a fence, children used the entire space. Constraints encourage us to use the full canvas. The constraints that have been placed on us during this crisis are like the fence, they allow us to play on the entire playground and not just close to the middle. The constraints of the crisis create gifts hidden in darkness. We have to seek the light. 

The situation we are in today is unprecedented. Most people have never lived through something at the scale of COVID-19. 

As a coach and advisor to many entrepreneurs and professionals, there are three guiding principles I have been sharing with clients and those in my social circle: 

1. Never let a crisis go to waste. 

2. We have been given the gift of time. 

3. Start from the outside in. 

To learn more about these three guiding principles, you can download a summary of a webinar we hosted recently. One expert has stated that when this is all over, we will all know someone who died from COVID-19. Consider how you will be remembered during this time. What would you like to have done to create value for a community in crisis? This is your time to serve.