Over 18 years developing kickass marketing and communications work for social change organizations and businesses, I’ve learned a lot about who clients expect me to be. Understandably, they expect a lot, as they turn over their trust, money, team and most importantly, their outcomes.
For a long time, I wondered what they would think if they knew I had been a heroin addict (from German Heroin, from Latin heros ‘hero’ because of its effects on the user’s self-esteem), or was involved in a variety of activities in which being a person of color would’ve likely landed me in jail?
Finally, three years ago, I told my story about heroin addiction on NPR. The day the interview aired, I had coffee with one of my favorite clients. She asked me if I had been on the radio that morning, as she “swore she heard my voice.” Despite understanding the “public” in public radio, I hadn’t fully prepared for how to share this part of myself with clients. I fessed up. “You were a heroin addict?” “Yes,” I replied.
What happened next has guided me ever since. She said “So that explains why you’re not some vapid consultant.” She then shared some personal challenges she had growing up and in past relationships. Despite a longstanding, strong relationship with this client, a whole new safe space emerged between us as a result of our vulnerability. From this space of mutual transparency and vulnerability, we became even better at working through the hardest questions we faced as partners on her organization’s work.
I used to wait for clients to set the tone at the beginning of a relationship — letting their preference for a more transparent or vulnerable partnership guide my own candor. But I’ve learned that my own willingness to be vulnerable — about my personal story, about red flags I see in a potential project, about a shortcut a client wants to take that will put us at risk — not only creates stronger partnerships with our clients, but allows for the kind of trust and commitment that drives better outcomes.