Q&A

How do you Become the Most Powerful Woman in the Room? We Interviewed Lydia Fenet at Christie’s to Find Out

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How do you Become the Most Powerful Woman in the Room? We Interviewed Lydia Fenet at Christie’s to Find Out
Photo by Jena Cumbo

Meet Lydia Fenet, managing director and global director of strategic partnerships at Christie’s, mother of three, the nation’s leading benefit auctioneer, and the most powerful woman in the room. To add to that list, she’s now also a best-selling author with her new book The Most Powerful Woman in the Room Is You: Command an Audience and Sell Your Way to Success.

Through reminiscing on her past successes and failures, Fenet’s memoir breaks down the key skills she’s developed over the years that allowed her to create a global department for the world’s leading auction house from scratch, and raise over half a billion dollars for more than 400 non-profits worldwide. So what’s her secret? We caught up with Fenet to find out. While she makes winning look easy (she's incredibly warmhearted and composed), she reveals how becoming a leader in her industry actually took a ton of hard work. Here, Fenet unpacks techniques from her book (like her “strike method”), discusses how gender relations have unfolded at Christie's, and explains how anyone can apply her lesson's to their own ascending path.

 Image via Jena Cumbo.

 

You were recently on your first book tour—how was that?

It was amazing. The best part of the tour were the Q&A segments that took place after I gave speeches because it was interesting to hear how people view the book through their own life experiences. I figured the audience would be mostly women in their 20s to 40s, but it’s actually moms reading this book to their daughters in high school, or recent college graduates who are figuring out their next steps. I’ve even had women in their 60s and 70s say to me, “I wish I could have read this book earlier” or, “these things happened to me along the way too.” It’s a variety of people at different points in their lives who take the book and make it their own, and that’s what I’ve seen on the tour.

You’ve been at Christie’s for 20 years now. How has the institution—which seems timeless to so many—changed throughout your time there?

It has changed a lot, most recently within the past ten years. It’s transformed in terms of what we’ve had to do to integrate technology into the art space. And more frankly, Christie’s has changed its approach to gender relations, which has been a pleasant surprise. For a long time, gender was something that most companies didn’t really address. In the past couple of years, especially since 2017, the company has taken a hard look at the whether their female employees are being compensated adequately and if it’s commensurate with the salaries of the men who work here. It’s been very transparent and something that would have been unexpected eight or nine years ago.

But, like most companies, Christie’s is working to remain relevant in a time where people are buying quickly, since auction is not necessarily a quick process. A lot of adjustments are being made to our online sales and we’re more nimble around how we sell. Also, attracting a new audience has been a huge drive for the company. People think of Christie’s and picture a Da Vinci for $450 million, when in fact, we sell things at very low price points that are completely competitive with One Kings Lane or any jewelry company that you would buy something of value from, and we’re trying to message that out as a company at this juncture.

You went from intern to managing director and global head of strategic partnerships. How?

When you read the book, you’ll learn that I started out as an intern at Christie’s basically right out of college. I used the opportunity to weasel my way in the door based on sheer work ethic more than anything, and I made myself completely indispensable. When I was first hired here, I worked in the events department and it was relentless. We lived in the building for 11-and-a-half months out of the year, only breaking for our two-week vacation, and I just learned a lot on the job. I always say that when you’re looking at the trajectory of your career; understand that the first steps are really your entry into any point. It’s important to take the opportunity to meet everyone, because everyone loves an eager intern, or an eager assistant, and at that point in your career, you’re surveying all of the potential opportunities and figuring out where you want to go.

In my case, I wanted to be head of the events department and I eventually worked my way into that position. Then, after years of being in the events department, I was done with being in that role. I actually asked the company if they wanted a Global Head of Events, and they said that it wasn’t something they were interested in. So, my job very easily could have stopped there after 10 years, but I knew I wanted to stay within Christie’s. I have a deep love of auction, and I also love the people who work here and the company culture. So I used a salary negotiation as an opportunity to pitch a new global department for the company, called Strategic Partnerships, which I’ve now run for Christie’s for 10 years. For me, the past decade has been basically growing something from scratch and showing proof of concept, which at the beginning was really tough. It was even difficult getting people to mentally transition from viewing me as Lydia the intern to Lydia running a global department. That took a lot of work in addition to running the department.

Lydia Fenet on stage with actor Ben Stiller during a charity auction in March.  

What is the value in staying at one company for many years, besides just climbing the corporate ladder (asking for impatient millennial friends who seem to change jobs annually)?

There are two things. First, I would say the positive part of staying at a company is that you’ve built sweat equity. Essentially, with the hours I’ve put in around this company, I can quickly make a direct call—probably to someone I know because I worked with them when I was 23, and I just happen to know that they have this particular skill set that I can leverage to get something done—where it would most likely take someone who’s new here weeks to figure out who the best contact is. With my team now, I let them figure those things out, because instead of me just handing over that information and making one call, it allows for them to grow their network within the business. I think that more than anything, the internal group of people and the network that you create are a huge part of staying at a company for a long time.

The other benefit of working at a company long term is that people trust you. After 20 years, if I say that I’m going to do something people know that I will do it because I’ve consistently proven that to be the case. Trust was very helpful when I had children, because when I left on maternity leave everyone knew that I was coming back, and that when I got back things would be the same, and it was.

The difficult part of staying at one company, which I address in the book, is the compensation piece. As you’re climbing up a corporate ladder, you’re probably only growing at a cost of living increase each year, unless of course you’re going and negotiating for what you want. Consequently, I would advise keeping an eye on benchmarking at other companies, because if you continue to get, say, a two percent raise each year and people are coming in above you, trust me, they’re going to be making a heck of a lot more than you are. Just be aware of where your salary lies on the external market and make sure that you’re compensated at that level. Otherwise, you’ll look back 10 years later, as I did, and you’ll be making a third of what you should be making.

Your book has amazing tips on how to know your worth and negotiate the salary/title you deserve, but the art world is notorious for demanding that people “pay their dues” and perform plenty of unpaid labor for credibility. How should people identify the line between, “I’m overworked and underpaid” and “I’m in a junior position and I need to put in the hours to work my way up?”

I was definitely the example of the underpaid and overworked person for many years, there’s no question about that. But I think that at the time, there was a very different way of thinking, which was very common. I was not the only one at Christie’s working all of the time. Now, there’s a much healthier approach to work-life balance. I would say, before you open your mouth and complain about doing something, think about whether it’s an opportunity for you to grow, or if it’s something you’re just doing that doesn’t need to be done. I’ve heard people (not necessarily at Christie’s) complain about having to get someone coffee. Well, your boss, who probably can’t get up from their desk, needs caffeine and you’re that person’s linchpin, so go above and beyond. Don’t think of it as a demeaning task, think of it as something that’s going to be helpful to your team because your boss will be well-caffeinated, and therefore, more likely to be helpful to you over the course of the day. Look at the larger landscape and think of yourself in that position in 10 to 15 years. I have three small children; if I can’t get caffeine and I have to rush to work for a meeting, I will love no one more than that person standing at the door with my coffee. It’s important to understand that there is a paying of dues at times, and frankly, it allows for you to open the door and chat to your boss when maybe you wouldn’t get that kind of airtime everyday. Use those moments as opportunities to ask about their weekend, or have a two-second conversation.

Lydia Fenet at last year's Food Bank for New York City charity auction. 

How is advancing in the art world different than other industries?

I think that because there’s a need for specific knowledge, you really need to actively absorb everything around you. The people who ultimately succeed in the art world, in my opinion, are the ones who easily get along with people. They’re out with our clients, interfacing, and attending events. They have a veracious knowledge of the art around them because they’re constantly educating themselves. I would advise anyone in the art world to try and be at every gallery opening and museum show. If your boss says that they can’t make it to a certain event, and asks if you want to go, the answer should always be yes. You should be out there absorbing everything in your universe to educate yourself, and then use that information to advance in your role.

One thing you stress in the book is the importance of networking, or as your father used to say, “network (or die).” However, when advancing in the art world seems to be largely based on who you know, it can be intimidating and difficult for people from lower socio-economic backgrounds to constantly attend art openings and after parties due to their work schedules and the added expense associated with “going out.” What advice do you have for emerging artists and art world professionals who feel like this level of networking is overwhelming or unattainable?

Look, I grew up in Lake Charles, Louisiana, and my parents were not collectors. I had a lovely life, but I did not come to New York City connected to art world mavens. I was in the events department, and gallery openings were things that I just heard about on the fly, and I took advantage of every single opportunity. I wore the same simple black dress year after year (to be fair, Instagram didn’t exist at that point so there was no pressure whatsoever) and I always took the subway to get there. It doesn’t actually have to cost anything to attend, and you don’t have to pay anything once you get there. It's possible for anyone to open the gallery door and walk in.

The auction world is also open for anyone to come in and meet people here as well, and that’s really what networking is. It isn’t necessarily about being from a family that collects art; it’s just about always being open to meeting people. Attending free openings, spending time in the galleries downtown, and getting to know the artists, the art, and the people who work there is a great way to do it. Everyone thinks that the art and auction world is so elite, but I think that’s a misnomer. If you’re purchasing at a certain level then yes, it can be an entirely different socio-economic backdrop, but auction houses are free and open to the public, and they’re some of the world’s greatest museums. I think the names Christie’s and Sotheby’s intimidate people, when in fact, the art is for everyone to see.

Image via ccn.com

Can you explain what a “strike method” is, and how you go about creating one?

A strike method is a way of transitioning your thinking. In my case, and why I call it the strike method, is because I’m typically seated at a benefit dinner, and right before I go onstage there’s always this moment where I get a tap on my shoulder, and then five minutes later I’m standing on stage in front of five thousand people trying to get money out of their wallets. Over the years, people kept asking me, “How do you go from that person having dinner to the person who’s on stage?” And I realized that as I’m walking out onto the stage, I always have a gavel that I bring up to slam down on the podium, and I’m always hyper aware of making sure that my first line of conversation is prepared going in. So when I walk on stage, I slam my gavel down and say one version of “good evening ladies and gentleman, my name is Lydia Fenet, I’m here from Christie’s auction house, I’m so excited to be here” and then I throw in a joke. The joke is something that I will have come up with backstage right before I go on. So during that time, I’m assessing what is going on with the crowd, and I don’t feel nervous because I know exactly what I’m going to say.

I realized that I do the same thing in meetings. If I have an important meeting, I will always think through what my opening line is, so that I don’t feel nervous. It’s just a bit of preparation, calming your mind and remembering what you’re going to do and why you’re there. In the book, in one of the case studies, I write about my friend, who’s an Olympic rower. She says that she always puts her hands on the person in front of her; it calms her and reminds the other person that she’s there and they’re going to do it together. I think that everyone can find a strike method; it’s just a question of figuring out what is going to calm your nerves and help you come from a point of strength.

I love how the book also incorporates advice from other successful women across multiple industries. Why was it important to you to include other women’s voices in your book?

Because I’m not the only person who feels like she’s been successful in her career, and I wanted other people who feel like they’re at that point professionally to share advice. I didn’t let any of them read the chapters before they wrote their case studies; I just sent them the name of the chapter. For example, “The Most Powerful Woman in the Room Knows You Are What You Negotiate,” and I would ask them to tell me about a time, in 150 words, when something in their life looked like that. It was amazing to watch these women come back—like Barbara Corcoran talking about failure and how she was initially rejected from Shark Tank. Or when I asked Martha Stewart to talk about selling as yourself, and she said that it’s not always about being liked, but doing what you think is right and authentic to you. I found that so many of the case studies lined up with something I had said earlier in the chapter. It was interesting to hear how they came to that same conclusion or similar thought in their own life.

You’re always busy, and you write that you like to stay busy; what will you do next? 

So many things! I recently signed with Creative Artists Agency so I’m going to be speaking with them, which is really exciting. CAA also has TV and film options that they’re currently selling, and I think that would be a really fun next step. But I think that the next book will be The Most Powerful Girl in the Room is You. I have two daughters who are six and two, and I want them to have this book. I would also love to do individual books in certain industries and partner with powerful women from each sector, so you have a handbook on how to become successful if you want to work in media or in finance. I want to continue to open this conversation and make sure women in the world feel like they have the power to do whatever they want.

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