The Most Powerful Woman in the Room: Empowerment Lessons From a Female Auctioneer

Jennifer Brown | |

You can also listen on iTunesStitcher, and Google Play.

Lydia Fenet, the Managing Director and Global Director of Strategic Partnerships at Christie’s Auction House and author of The Most Powerful Woman in the Room is You, joins the program to share her story of becoming a successful charity auctioneer. Lydia shares how she found her own auctioneering style, and how she was able to successfully negotiate a significant promotion and salary increase with her employer. She also reveals lessons from her experiences about how women can increase their negotiation skills and claim their power.

In this episode you’ll discover:

  • Lydia’s diversity story and how she developed a love for travel (3:00)
  • The importance of having confidence in your voice (7:00)
  • How Lydia got started as an auctioneer (13:00)
  • Tips for being present onstage (33:00)
  • How to win the crowd over (36:00)
  • The obstacles that women face when negotiating salary (42:00)
  • What led Lydia to negotiate her salary and title (45:00)
  • How Lydia tripled her salary and negotiated an international title (47:00
  • How men can support and encourage women (52:00)

Listen in now, or read on for the transcript of our conversation:

JENNIFER BROWN: Lydia Fenet traveled a twenty-year journey from intern to now Managing Director and Global Director of Strategic Partnerships at Christie’s Auction House. She is one of the foremost female charity auctioneers in the world, and is considered an expert on the art of selling. Her auctioneering achievements have been featured in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Forbes, Vogue, Crain’s, Elle, Vanity Fair, and many others. Her first book, The Most Powerful Woman in the Room is You, was just published this Spring of 2019.

There were so many elements of Lydia’s story that I think will resonate with and honestly entertain our Will to Change audience. She takes us inside the process of being on those stages – describing charity auctioneering as like giving a speech while someone’s throwing things at you. I thought my job, speaking to audiences of apathetic and even hostile executives around the world on the topic of diversity was hard! I also loved hearing about the night that 20-something Lydia had to get on stage, sick as a dog, because no other auctioneers were available, and just didn’t have the energy to pretend to be the “older British gentlemen” she’d watched and learned from. With no energy to be anything BUT authentic, she resorted to her now-signature humor and ability to set the audience at ease; in that moment of vulnerability, she found her unique voice and ability to control an audience, which would catapult her to stages all over the world. She would subsequently raise over half a billion dollars for over 400 non-profits, and has been training all of Christie’s benefit auctioneers for the last seven years.

And yet she has had to fight for her own status and compensation, with some real do-or-die moments of courage which she shares in this episode. Even the title of her own book, The Most Powerful Woman in the Room is You, made her (and others, presumably) uncomfortable at first, generating a lot of quizzical looks and raised eyebrows. Why are we uncomfortable with women having power? Nevertheless, she’d put a stake in the ground with that title, and would grow into loving it  – and its powerful statement of belonging in the room as women or anyone who is unlikely to be “the most powerful” historically, has resonated with so many.  Near the end of our conversation, she shares a classic salary negotiation experience that I guarantee will motivate every listener. She quotes in her book, “if you didn’t make ‘em wince, you didn’t ask for enough.”  Lydia’s asked, and received ten-fold, showing us what’s possible, if we push, and believe.

Lydia, welcome to The Will to Change.

LYDIA FENET: Thank you, Jennifer. Thank you so much for having me.

JENNIFER BROWN: Your story just left me speechless when I learned it. I think our listeners will find out why as we uncover what your career path particularly has ended up with. You do something incredibly unusual for women and you work in an unusual industry as well. I think the world of art, which you’re going to tell us about, is an interesting one when we think about representation of all kinds of the diversity that we talk about on The Will to Change. I can’t wait to bring your story to this audience.

You’re also a very powerful – I would call you a “rainmaker.” Literally. I really relate to people that essentially sell for a living and hustle as much as you do. It’s something that is near and dear to my heart because it’s how I’ve been an entrepreneur for over a decade, hustling all the time.

LYDIA FENET: Yes. It’s all about the hustle.

JENNIFER BROWN: You have a real message for our audience. We’re going to tease apart some of those things that get in the way of women seeing themselves as powerful, particularly from the stage and also hustling and not being afraid of talking about how we hustle and why it’s so important that we do so, and what you’ve built, honestly, as a result of your hustle. That’s going to be our theme word.

When we talked about your diversity story – we always start the podcast with that question – it does go back to your childhood and particularly your mom. I wanted to invite you to start us off with acquainting us with your early days and what kind of world you were exposed to and how you carry that forward into your self today.

LYDIA FENET: Absolutely. Once again, thank you so much for having me, Jennifer. I absolutely love this podcast.

JENNIFER BROWN: Yes, this is going to be fun.

LYDIA FENET: I’ve really enjoyed meeting you. I grew up in a small town in Louisiana where diversity did not play a huge role in my everyday life. Although there was some diversity amongst my parents’ friends, most of our friends looked the same, practiced the same religion at church on Sunday, and were very conservative in their world views.

Really, the differentiating factor for me was my mother. My mother is British and left her entire family in England when she moved to Louisiana to marry my father and start her family in her early 20s. Even though she was British by birth, her father was a banker and moved his entire family to Africa when she was little. So, she spent a lot of her childhood between a boarding school in England and living in Africa and has these amazing stories that she used to tell us when we were little about her time spent growing up in Africa and how different it was than growing up in England.

To this day, she really thinks nothing of getting on a plane and loves nothing more than diving into the culture of a different country.

Since her family was still in England, when I was little, we spent a ton of time in England and traveled all over western Europe. Even though I spent a lot of time in Louisiana growing up, I also spent a lot of time seeing the rest of the world. I became aware of a much larger world with people of all races and religions and beliefs than the one that I’d seen growing up in Louisiana.

I moved to New York when I was 21, and without a doubt one of my favorite things about living here is the diversity. I live downtown, which means that I can be in Chinatown or Little Italy in five minutes. And it almost makes me feel like I can leave and go to a different country in five minutes.

JENNIFER BROWN: Totally.

LYDIA FENET: As someone who loves to travel, it’s such a gift. And, honestly, one of my favorite things to do is just put on my headphones on a warm day and walk through the city and see the diversity and see the unbelievable culture that is mixed and living side by side, and it makes me very proud to be here and proud to live in New York.

But I also inherited my mom’s love of travel. And so I really spent my early 20s traveling around as much as my limited vacation time would allow me to other countries, specifically in Asia and I remember the first time I went to Bangkok and I walked off the plane and it just blew my mind. It was so different than anything I had seen.

And this was really pre-iPhone, pre-Internet even, because I was in my very early 20s. And it really just exposed me to this entire world where I was so vulnerable because I didn’t speak the language, I didn’t read the language, and I just sort of had to rely on other people and other people’s kindness to get me through. And it was that, I think, for me, that travel that really showed me that the world is a very large place and we have to understand each other’s differences and celebrate those differences.

When I was little, my mom used to say the same thing over and over again anytime we would grimace and she would try to make us eat something that was British and not something that we’d grown up eating. And she would say, “It’s not wrong, it’s not bad, it’s just different.” And I find myself saying it to my children and even to my team a lot of the time because things that are different are not wrong or bad, they’re just not what we bring to the table or what we’ve been exposed to.

And so I think it’s incumbent upon us to really make sure that we’re open to those things because that’s what’s going to make life so much more exciting.

JENNIFER BROWN: You’re so right. And I can imagine that ability to connect with audiences, which we’ll talk about a little bit later in your auctioneering life is informed I think by figuring out how to appreciate the difference in the audience between you and the audience, perhaps, because they might be totally different parts of the country or the world than you’ve been exposed to, totally different age groups, and yet you have to approach it with a certain level of vulnerability.

And I’m sure you build it into your ability to connect with them, right? So, all of these things, I’m sure, empower you and developed the skills that now you can employ on stages all over the world.

LYDIA FENET: Absolutely. And as a speaker, I know you’re a fantastic speaker, and I think one of the things that makes someone very talented in public speaking or on stage is being able to read an audience because I can take an auction in Savannah, Georgia, and I will approach that audience very differently than I would approach an audience in New York City.

I gave a speech earlier this week at 8:00 at night and I could see that the people in front of me were very tied. And so I immediately thought to myself, I can’t make this a 45-minute speech where I’m talking at an audience of people who already look tired. I need to throw in questions and get them engaged so they feel like there’s a part where they’re going to be able to speak as well. And I think that that goes back to – I talk a lot about in public speaking, the most powerful woman in the room is you, developing your voice and having confidence in your voice.

JENNIFER BROWN: That’s right. That’s so critical. Let’s go back. I don’t want to leave people hanging in terms of your professional path.

You are one of the few people I’ve ever met that has worked for one employer for 20 years. Obviously, you’ve been at Christie’s for 20 years.

LYDIA FENET: 20 years.

JENNIFER BROWN: You’ve gone through various roles like planning international events as a 26-year-old, being handed a ton of responsibility, not necessarily having ever done it before and wondering whether you’d be good at it, which big surprise, you pulled it off.

But you’ve been there for 20 years. You’ve switched roles a couple times. And, quickly, you’ve now ended up with several partnership roles and also as the charity auctioneering department lead.

LYDIA FENET: Yes.

JENNIFER BROWN: And you actually now teach auctioneering, which is cool. Quickly, can you take us through I guess your early days in the art world? I’m curious, I know you had a passion for it, you were exposed to all the great museums of the world. I’m sure that you got bit by the bug. By the way, so was I. I left college as an art history major.

LYDIA FENET: Oh, yes!

JENNIFER BROWN: I loved it as well. I didn’t quite know what that would look like, but I just knew that I loved the context of art and what it said about society. And I think if I had stayed in it, of course, I probably would have moved into feminist art and studied female artists and probably gone down that road, perhaps as a curator, et cetera. But I love what I do now, but I think it trained my brain to think about what art means in people’s lives.

Particularly as a woman going through that world, I’m sure you witnessed an industry that doesn’t have very good representation in certain aspects – certainly the auctioneering world. Just to start with. But I wonder about the early days of Christie’s, et cetera.

Can you take us back and walk us through what happened?

LYDIA FENET: Absolutely. I declared a second major in art history when I went for a junior semester abroad at Oxford University. Up until that point, I mean, my parents certainly had taken us to museums and I always say to people that most of the time we spent just trying to get them outside of the museum to the ice cream truck in the front when I was little.

And it wasn’t really until the semester at Oxford that I had a professor who just in many ways captured my imagination. And we traveled with that professor after the class was over for a month around Europe, going to all the major museums.

And as soon as I got back, I was already a history major, I declared a second major in art history and then just crammed art history classes for my junior and senior year so that by the time I graduated, I was a major in both.

Between my junior and senior year in college, I applied for an internship at Christie’s Auction House and received the internship after basically stalking the internship coordinator who told me that the program was full.

After that point, I started at Christie’s as an intern, loved everything about it, and was desperate to come back here after I graduated.

But they didn’t have any jobs available, so I just came back into another internship after my senior year and stayed until they hired me into a full-time role.

And so I was hired into the events department where, as you said earlier, we were planning events internationally, incredible events, and I loved everything about it. Ultimately, I was hired into that role where I spent ten years, the first half working for other people, and then at the age of 26, both of the people above me left within six months and they sort of turned to me as the last man standing and said, “Do you want the job?” (Laughter.)

Of course, it’s interesting because if the people above you are doing a good job, then you don’t actually know how hard the job is. To me, it looked very easy. And I thought, oh, yeah, no problem, I’ll hire a department, this will be so easy. And then the reality of what the job looked like when I first started was overwhelming. And I feel like I spent the first couple of year just really faking it till I made it because a lot of times I didn’t actually know the answer, so I just kept a poker face, gave whatever answer I could come up with on the spot, and then ran back behind the scenes and tried to fix it as well as I could to make sure that it actually was the truth.

I would say “fake it till you make it” is a huge part of any job, just know that.

JENNIFER BROWN: Totally agree.

LYDIA FENET: At the same time, I had tried out to be a charity auctioneer when I was 24. Going back to what you were saying, the auctioneering world is very male heavy. If you ever think of an auctioneer, you’re thinking of a man in a bow tie with a British accent standing on the podium. And when I first started here in my 20s, that was certainly the case.

And I tried out to be a charity auctioneer, which is different than an art auctioneer, because it means that you’re going out and taking auctions for nonprofits anywhere outside of the four walls of Christie’s.

So, unlike the auctioneers who are selling Picassos and Monets, I’m selling a trip or a priceless experience, like a dinner date with George Clooney, or a trip to see Lady Gaga where she teaches you how to sing. I mean, truly, priceless, one-of-a-kind experiences to benefit charities.

And it’s very appealing to me because I love going out, I love being dressed up, all of these things about the galas of New York very much appealed to me when I was 24.

And so I tried out with a class of 20 people, and in the end, four of us passed and three of them were guys. And I continued on taking auctions just as I’d seen everyone taking auctions for years because my role models at that point were all men. And I’d accompanied a lot of the men when I was in events to charity auctions to help them as the bid clerk or the person spotting, which means that you’re pointing out the people who are bidding during an auction.

I just kept thinking, “This is something that I would love to do. I would love to be on that stage.” But when I finally got the chance, I took the auctions exactly like I’d seen them taken before because, again, the role models that I had around me were men.

When I finally had the chance to get on stage, I thought I was going to have this great different style, and in fact, I did exactly what I’d seen before me. And it wasn’t until about five years into auctioneering that I was really sick one night, very, very sick. I’d been sick the whole day. And I went to take an auction because none of the other auctioneers were available. And I got on stage, and it was like I couldn’t actually pretend to be anyone except for me. And me is not an older British gentlemen. At the time, I was in my late 20s by this point, and I started talking to the audience the way that I would talk to a friend, making jokes, and talking about how something that I was selling, the woman who sat next to me at a lunch earlier in the year, I was selling a lot that involved her. And I mentioned the fact that someone had broken up with me and she’d been very kind and how she’d given me wine and chocolate during the lunch to make me feel better. Yes, you were going to see her art collection, but more importantly, you were going to get to hang out with her and she was just a great version of Oprah.

And all of a sudden the audience was laughing. And I remember thinking, all right, now I’m onto something. This needs to be me selling as me and not me imitating someone else or someone else’s style.

And that was a really transformative moment for me. And because I now train the charity auctioneers, that’s the way I trained them. And because they see a woman up on stage taking auctions, now there are a lot of women who come to the class to take the charity auctioneering class, which is very exciting to me because it feels like I’ve been able to impact a shift within a company that I love that I’ve worked in for 20 years.

So, it’s been a very exciting career with as many ups and downs as you can imagine would happen over 20 years.

JENNIFER BROWN: Oh, yeah!

LYDIA FENET: It’s a very interesting space, and I think – I feel very strong that as a woman, being here and having had so many years here, I have so much trust built in the company that even writing this book, The Most Powerful Woman in the Room is You, I think there were a lot of people who didn’t really know what to say at first. But now the company really supports it and they’re very much behind it, which is also very exciting because I feel like it opens conversations that weren’t even happening two years ago.

JENNIFER BROWN: And I read in one of your articles that women and men have a very different reaction to the message of your book as you tell them what the chapter titles are. Can you tell us a little bit about that and why do you think that is? By the way, I totally agree with you and have my own hypothesis, too, but can you share a little bit about that reaction and what it says about how we think of ourselves as women and how we use our voice and our confidence?

LYDIA FENET: Absolutely. When I first wrote the title of the book, The Most Powerful Woman in the Room is You, I was even uncomfortable saying it. And probably for the first year as I was writing it, when people would ask me what the name of the book was, I would sort of say, “Oh, it’s, um –” A lot of “ums,” a lot of squirming. The Most Powerful Woman in the Room is You, and people would sort of smirk and say, “Oh!”

JENNIFER BROWN: You think a lot of yourself, don’t you?

LYDIA FENET: Yes, exactly. Wow. And I said, well, it is “you.” I kept saying that is the qualifier. This isn’t a book about me, it’s about “is you,” but really it is actually a book about me.

JENNIFER BROWN: It is about you. (Laughter.)

LYDIA FENET: But it’s information that I’m passing along to someone else. And it’s been an interesting journey for me in this past year because I feel as if this past year of just repeatedly saying, “The Most Powerful Woman in the Room is You” has gone from me wincing to me feeling that in such a major way.

And I think the way that I deliver it to my male colleagues, my female colleagues is completely different than the way that I first delivered it. And now not only do they not sort of cringe I think would be the best word to describe it, they’re excited about it. And I think it’s because I’m excited about it and I’m confident in it and I think that changes the message around it.

JENNIFER BROWN: It does. You said that men hear the chapters and they’re, like, “Yeah, right on, sounds great.”

LYDIA FENET: Yes.

JENNIFER BROWN: And women are like, “I need that book, I’ve got to buy that and read it right away.”

LYDIA FENET: Absolutely.

JENNIFER BROWN: That speaks volumes about how we see ourselves in the world. It translates into a million diversity issues that I won’t bore you with, but I know that we’ve talked about a lot on The Will to Change, which is really – and I’m curious, actually, how women show up in your auctioneering classes. I’m curious if you see an appreciable difference now in terms of how people pitch themselves, how they present themselves with confidence, and how do you coach the women differently in the room than the men? Do you find you need to do that, that you want to do that? What criteria do you use when you’re spotting talent? Is it a game of not skills, but confidence for some of the women that you’re sort of bringing up through your process? I’m curious like what happens in that classroom and how you think about it.

LYDIA FENET: When I have both men and women up in front of me doing the story, the first thing I’m looking for is someone who is a natural public speaker because auctioneering, charity auctioneering specifically, is almost like giving a speech while someone’s throwing things at you. It’s very complicated because you have to keep a train of thought, you have to identify your bidders, you have to keep the numbers straight, and then you also have to make sure that you have the right paddles and you know where they are in a crowded room.

There are a lot of things that go into just the elements surrounding the auctioneering process itself. And so the person, if they’re a natural public speaker, it makes it much easier to train them. And if I’m in the class of 20, and ultimately I will usually pass about four, that makes it easy. It is not the one thing that immediately gets someone voted off the island, if you will, because we eliminate people until we get down to four people typically.

I’m usually looking for in women, a confidence certainly, but also a fearlessness because you kind of – I think that that would be the best way to describe being on stage. You become a great auctioneer when you are truly fearless and you no longer fear the audience. And that even if the audience is talking, you’re not standing up there thinking, “Oh, God, how am I going to make them stop talking?” You’re thinking, “I’m going to make them stop talking, and here is my toolkit of things that I’ve learned either because Lydia has taught me or I’ve learned on my own. And I’m going to start pulling these out one by one until I get the one that gets this crowd and they’ll pay attention to me.”

And I think even going back to what you were saying before about the book titles, each chapter is entitled The Most Powerful Woman in the Room, dot, dot, dot, and chapter number 3 is “knows you are what you negotiate.” And when I say this out loud to my guy friends, they all smile and nod and look at me as if this is something they’ve known their entire lives, whereas I say this to women and they look at me like I’ve just unlocked a gate to a garden that they’d never seen before. What are you talking about? You are what you negotiate? I never thought of it like that.

And so it’s much the same way in auctioneering. To women, I’m pushing them to be fearless. A lot of the guys who get up already have that quality. I think women now seeing me as an auctioneer, seeing me as fearless on stage and understanding that that’s a quality that they’re going to need to have, they come to the class ready to do it and they’re not embarrassed because I’m not embarrassed by it.

And I think, again, it goes back to what you see. If I walked in the door of Christie’s when I was 21 and there were five dynamic women up on the podium taking auctions, then in my mind I would have immediately thought, “Oh, that’s something I can do.” Instead, this has been a journey for me. I had five years of taking 70 to 100 auctions a year where I would walk into a room and they would say, “Oh, we’ll just put you at the kids’ table.” Whereas if I’d been one of my senior gentlemen colleagues doing the exact same job, they would have been seated at the head table.

I had to get to a point where I said, “Yes, I will be seated at the head table, I will bring a guest,” all of the things that are assumed for my male colleagues, I too will do these things. And I would have to be unabashed about it, otherwise, I would be seated by the back table. I would be seated by the door at the kids’ table, which if you are the person who’s raising the operating budget for a charity over the course of a year, is not necessarily a place that you should be.

JENNIFER BROWN: That’s for sure. I love so many things about that. You have to demand it if you want it given to you. And you have to act very casual about it. “Hey, this is what I demand, what I need.”

I want to hear more about what people say to you because I know they’re shocked when you walk in the door and you hear all sorts of interesting questions about the role that you’re going to play, you’re maybe a little micro-managed in an extra way, right, in terms of questioning that you know what you’re doing.

LYDIA FENET: Yes.

JENNIFER BROWN: I think a lot of our listeners can really relate to these stories you could share. So, give us a little bit of a view of what you hear and how do you respond? I think you’re so funny and creative and good on your feet, I’d love to hear some clever rejoinders.

LYDIA FENET: Absolutely. Interestingly, these have even happened this year. Both of the examples I can give you right now have happened in the past six months. One of them was for an international auction.

I had been asked to take an auction where I was giving up the Friday night of my Thanksgiving weekend to fly overnight to Germany.

And the auction had been taken by a gentleman for 15 years and they were very nervous about the fact that there was a woman coming to take the auction, to the point that the museum director flew to New York to meet me to make sure that I was going to be the right fit for the audience. Which, in itself, was already hilarious because, frankly, I take more charity auctions than anyone in this entire company. I’ve been the lead charity auctioneer for New York for almost seven years now, and I teach all of our charity auctioneers. So, again, as a woman, I feel like that’s an extra step that you’re used to. Obviously, I said, “Please come over, I would love to meet you.”

We met, we had a lovely conversation. And then there were a number of calls about how I was going to control the crowd of 900 people. Now, if you know anything about charity auctions, the smallest auction that I will ever take is probably 350 to 500 people. And as I often say with a crowd, once you’ve seen a crowd of 500 people, you’ve kind of seen them all. It doesn’t really matter how many people are in the audience, at that point it just becomes about noise control.

I take an auction every year at Madison Square Garden with 6,000 people. I usually use that as a point of reference if people are worried about my ability to keep a crowd quiet. I’ll say, “Well, I do take this auction at Madison Square Garden with 6,000 people on stage with Bruce Springsteen.” So, that often closes down the conversation.

JENNIFER BROWN: Oh, my goodness. Trust me, I’ve got this.

LYDIA FENET: I’m sure. I know. I’ve met you before and I can imagine that conversation happening with you as well. It’s just sort of that extra layer.

And I try not to take offense. I try to always stay above ground on any conversations that I’m having, keep a smile on my face, but I’m firm. I don’t back down.

I remember at one point I said, “Again, I would be happy to find another auctioneer if you do not feel that I am the right fit for this auction.” Obviously, I’d be happy to stay on New York on Thanksgiving Day weekend and not fly to Germany for a night to take an action, but I will happily do it if you would like me, but I do understand if you would like to go in a different direction.

So, the night before I flew overnight, I think I slept for three hours on the flight, and I arrived at this auction dressed in the same way that I would take an auction in New York, which is a cocktail dress and sort of strappy, sparkly sandals. It’s the way I feel comfortable on stage, it allows me to move around.

When I walked in, one of the women on the committee, the first thing she said in front of about 25 people, “You’re not wearing stockings, how very American of you.” And I laughed and I said, “Well, in America, we don’t wear stockings, it’s just not what we do.” But I was so taken aback at the fact that she’d said it in front of so many people. And I’m not sure if she said it to undermine my authority. I don’t actually know why she said it. I think it was just an unintentional moment for her where she felt like she had to point out something that maybe everybody else was thinking.

But it really felt like I couldn’t believe that after almost 16 years of being an auctioneer, I was still having this conversation. It really felt very frustrating in many ways, but at the same time not entirely surprising.

And I also felt like I have often felt over my career that I just, in my mind, all I can think of is, “And now I’m going to rock the stage like nothing you’ve ever seen before in your life.” And no one will remember that other auctioneer when I get off stage in my sparkly sandals and my cocktail dress. And that’s what happened.

And I feel like that, to me, is always the proof. You know, you have doubted me, and now it has gone better than expectations. I got off stage and she immediately said in front of the crowd, “We could only hope that you could come back again next year.”

JENNIFER BROWN: Lovely.

LYDIA FENET: I remember sort of thinking, “Well, we’ll see what happens.”

JENNIFER BROWN: We’ll see, it’s my choice.

LYDIA FENET: We’ll see.

JENNIFER BROWN: It’s my choice now. And, by the way, don’t micromanage me like that ever again.

LYDIA FENET: It does feel like that. I had another conversation with a gentleman even more recently when I went to take an auction in the south where he pulled me aside right after I got to the event and said, “I want to talk to you about your bidding style and how you start auctions.” And I said to him, my father is an attorney, I said, “I feel like you’re leading the witness here. Why don’t you tell me what you think I should do, sir?” With a smile on my face. And I think he didn’t actually know what to do with that answer because I think he’d expected me to tell him what I thought.

So, he fumbled around. And I said, “Okay, now that it’s clear that I’m the expert here, why don’t I tell you what I’m going to do to make sure that this auction is successful.” And I told him and he agreed with me, which made him feel great I think. But, again, can you imagine a gentleman walking in and somebody telling them how to do their job? I suspect not. Those were the most recent ones.

JENNIFER BROWN: You have nights where you raise $500,000 and that’s just a normal night for you. Tell us how many nights you do auctioneering in addition to your daytime Christie’s job. Literally, you work a full day, come home, you have three kids, you have dinner, maybe you do a run, then you dress up and you go back out and you do an auction from 8:00 to 11:00 at night.

LYDIA FENET: Yes.

JENNIFER BROWN: And then you rinse and repeat multiple times a week. It’s incredible. I don’t even know what the question is in that because it’s such a pace that I think a lot of people wish they had the energy for. I know you get a lot of questions about balance, and I don’t love asking my female guests about how you balance it all. We all know what a stereotype that reveals. But what do you want to tell us about your reflections how you’ve constructed your life so that you can work on all of your passions, personal and professional?

LYDIA FENET: I think that because I started taking auctions when I was 24 and my day was structured where I would be in the office all day and then I would change while I was at my desk. Sometimes I would be sitting at my desk in a cocktail dress, and then I would leave and go take the auction, that I got very used to the rhythm of having two jobs. And it did not seem abnormal at all. And because I’ve already committed to a lot of the charities, when I found out that I was pregnant with my first child, I wasn’t going to cancel. I wasn’t going to disappoint them and not be there. Because a lot of times with these charities, I’ve been working with them for five, six years at that point, 10, 11, 12 years with other ones. And we have this relationship where they rely on me to raise money for their operating budget.

It can be something like pediatric cancer where raising money for an operating budget is the difference between a child getting treatment and a child dying. And that, to me, is something that I take very seriously and the thought of not being there for some of these charities was unimaginable. I just took it off the table.

So, I continued taking auctions through nine months of pregnancy, up until two weeks before I had each of my children. So I’m on stage, hugely pregnant. But going back to what we were saying before, you use that on stage. And I would laughingly say to the audience, “All right, who is more uncomfortable right now? Is it you or is it me?”

JENNIFER BROWN: I love that. (Laughter.)

LYDIA FENET: I can’t avoid the fact that I’m hugely pregnant on stage, I’m very uncomfortable. Give me more money and then I can get off stage and then everybody will be comfortable, please. (Laughter.) Which is always kind of a funny way to do it. And then, of course, the next year they were always asking about, “How’s the baby,” you know, all of those things.

JENNIFER BROWN: Yes, of course.

LYDIA FENET: But then I had the babies and all of a sudden it wasn’t that the passion for auctioneering went away. And so then it became how do I make this happen so that I can go out and take the auctions, but also be home with the children? And so that immediately became I would leave work at an earlier time to get home, spend time with my baby, and then put the baby to bed every night at 7:00 because that is very helpful to me to know that my kids are in their rooms or at least in bed by 7:00 because that allows me a little bit of time, not much, to get ready to go back out and not also be trying to get them into their beds.

And that happened with Beatrice, my first, and that worked. And then it happened with my second, Henry. And then by the time I go to Eloise, it was sort of a well-oiled machine. Now, definitely, there’s no question that there are some nights that are total chaotic.

My husband comes home and relieves me so that I can go back out on the nights that I have auctions. Or sometimes we get a babysitter. I also have a mother-in-law and a mother. And as a woman, you know that the best thing you have is your support system. And if you aren’t relying on your support system, then it’s going to be difficult to achieve the dreams that you have.

Moms do a lot and we do a lot on the home front. We also do a lot on the work front. There are so many different parts of our lives. And so to keep those things going, I firmly believe that you have to get your support system in place. And once you have that, it allows you the flexibility to do more.

I mean, I wish I could say that I did every single thing, but that’s simply not true. And I also rely very heavily on apps.

JENNIFER BROWN: On apps?

LYDIA FENET: Fresh Direct.

JENNIFER BROWN: Yes, indeed.

LYDIA FENET: I don’t think I’ve been to a grocery store in years, so whoever invented it, I’d like to say thank you.

JENNIFER BROWN: And we also talked about your fabulous auction outfits. You and I talked about dresses and outfits that you’re photographed in and keeping things fresh by using services like Rent the Runway Unlimited.

LYDIA FENET: Absolutely.

JENNIFER BROWN: It’s just this constant wardrobe challenge. I have the same kind of life. I don’t think to the degree you do, but just thinking about how can you keep your look fresh? But even that is such a double standard for women. We always have to show up in something new.

LYDIA FENET: Yes.

JENNIFER BROWN: And, by the way, it’s like the Ginger Rogers dancing backwards in high heels and making it look easy.

LYDIA FENET: Yes. Don’t trip. (Laughter.)

JENNIFER BROWN: I’m sure there are moments when you’re like, “The show must go on,” regardless of how you feel. And you’re such a pro at just putting yourself into that moment and everything else recedes. Do you have any tricks that you do for yourself to get yourself present? Or is it so easy now to do it that it just flips on and you’re on stage and you’re in charge and you forget? I’m sure it feels like you’re sort of channeling when you’re up there. I don’t know if you have a good memory of what happens and what comes out of your mouth or whether you’re in this other mode. I know I have that feeling all the time where I’m like, “What just happened? People are telling me it was great.”

I was in this different – I don’t know what the word is.

LYDIA FENET: Persona.

JENNIFER BROWN: Yeah. Is that what it feels like?

LYDIA FENET: Absolutely. In the book, I talk about the beginning of the book, for me, I start in the first ten seconds before I go on stage, which I’m sure you can relate to, you get that crazy adrenaline rush where it feels like you’ve flown by a cop going 100 miles an hour, it’s like ice in your veins.

JENNIFER BROWN: Totally. (Laughter.)

LYDIA FENET: And at first I think that used to just strike fear in my heart, and then I realized that I could use that adrenaline in such a major way to channel the energy to the audience. You bring the enthusiasm that you get from the audience. If you walk out there flat and closed, then that’s exactly what you’re going to get from them. And if you are a bright smile, and in my case I take that gavel and I slam it down three times. I call it the strike method. It’s that moment where I go from Lydia, who was seated at a table two inches from the stage, to Lydia who is now going to be on stage and take all of the money that I possibly can and funnel it back into a charity from the people in the audience at that moment.

That method for me is a very transformative moment because, again, in many cases, I’m sitting for a dinner next to someone who’s never seen me go on stage or someone I’ve just met and we’re mid conversation when someone taps me on the shoulder and says, “You’re on in three minutes.” I just sort of grab the microphone and go up on stage. Having that gavel and that moment of just here I am, I’m in charge, everybody pay attention, even if for this one moment I get their eyes swiveling up to stage to hear what this noise is. That, for me, pulls the power that I need to sell and to have that passion and enthusiasm for the nonprofit.

When I was pregnant, especially with my first and my third, I was so sick. What I didn’t realize at the time was being on stage was actually the only time that I felt okay.

JENNIFER BROWN: No way.

LYDIA FENET: Because the adrenaline would rush in. And so for 45 minutes, I would feel totally normal, and that was the only time of day that I felt like that. It was getting there. I would fall asleep sometimes in the cab on the way. I would just lie on my side and pray that I wasn’t ill in the cab. And then I would get there and they’d always put me in a chair somewhere around. And of course because I’m a woman, I would be telling everyone, “Oh, no, no, no, I’m fine.” Meanwhile, I was not fine.

JENNIFER BROWN: Making it look easy, yes.

LYDIA FENET: Yes. But then knowing that the minute I got on stage and I hit that gavel down, I was going to feel better and I was going to feel ready.

JENNIFER BROWN: So true. I just gave a couple keynotes, I was very sick. And I don’t honestly think there was any perceptible difference to the audience in my quality at all. And that I think about just the wear and tear of auditioning in the opera world as I was performer for years. I’m so grateful for it. It just becomes this skill and you can rely on it.

LYDIA FENET: Yes.

JENNIFER BROWN: But it’s also the fearlessness you talked about. I love the gavel and bringing everybody to attention is so empowering for particularly people who are underestimated.

LYDIA FENET: Totally.

JENNIFER BROWN: To me, walking into that and knowing somebody has doubted whether you can deliver is super energizing for me.

LYDIA FENET: Yes, exactly.

JENNIFER BROWN: I just know as a woman keynoter that’s rising up and up in my levels, there are fewer and fewer women. It’s starting to thin out a bit – or a lot. It’s really interesting to think about power that I feel on the stage wielding that microphone, having everybody’s attention, being able to call the crowd back, but also the crowd – getting them on your side and then controlling it is a very intoxicating feeling for me. I love it. And yet, I’m giving so much to them, I truly believe that I am providing something that they really need and want. I feed off of that energy and get so much.

Even in a resistant audience, it’s tougher to work for their trust.

LYDIA FENET: Yes.

JENNIFER BROWN: I sometimes feel myself sweating and working harder.

LYDIA FENET: Yes.

JENNIFER BROWN: I’ll realize that only later that, wow, that was kind of tough. And so you’ve got to dig deeper into your reservoir. I wondered, the toughest audiences you’ve had, where do you dig into your reservoir and what would we find if we got to peer into that deep, dark skillset that you have for those tough situations?

LYDIA FENET: Going back to what I said about when I’m training people and my sort of toolkit that I use to get the crowd on my side, there are a couple of different things, but one thing that I find is constantly effective in front of an audience that is existent is acknowledging that they’re not doing what you need them to do and asking them to rise to the occasion.

If an audience is being incredibly loud, I’ll often ask people in the room who I’ve met, maybe the table that I was seated at or the tables in the front row that I can see. And look at them and say, “Could you guys help me shush the crowd?” And the crowd – they’ll do it, and finally the crowd will settle down. I’ll make a comment like, “You must be so ashamed of yourselves for being so loud.” And then I laugh and say something like, “I’m just kidding, you guys are a great audience.”

For a second, they’re like, “Wait, is she serious?” And then we make it into a joke and everybody is paying attention again. But also wondering what I’m going to say next. I challenge them to meet me. Yes, I understand that you’re not paying attention. Yes, you know you’re supposed to be paying attention, but how are we going to make this work together?

That might happen five or six times over the course of an evening. Let’s say I started an auction lot and it isn’t going particularly well, let’s say I get two bidders on something and we go up one level and I hammer it down and say, “Sold for $1,000,” or whatever it is. I might say to the audience, “Well, that was incredibly mediocre, as I’m sure you all know, because an auction should obviously have more than two bidders. So, for our next lot we’re going to try to do a little better.” And then the next lot, when we get three bidders I’ll say something like, “Three bidders, what an incredible lot,” or something along those lines.

The audience feels like it’s a play. They’re watching the game and they’re watching the sport. And then they get in on it and they start to encourage other people as well.

My favorite is the person who inevitably, at the end of an auction yells out to someone else in the audience who’s bidding, while everyone’s waiting to find out whether this person’s going to bid that one last bid, there’s always a person who yells out, “Do it.” And I always say, “Says the person who’s not even bidding.”

JENNIFER BROWN: Oh!

LYDIA FENET: Which always bets a laugh out of the audience. And everyone in the audience always says, I’ll get that, “Oh!”

JENNIFER BROWN: Oh!

LYDIA FENET: And then I say back to them, “Well, prove me wrong.”

JENNIFER BROWN: Right, right! So good, I love it.

LYDIA FENET: And then they think it’s fun. It’s a game. And as you said, especially with an audience, you’re playing with them and that’s what keeps them engaged. When you start to treat them like a black wall that you can’t see past, that’s when they’re staring at you with glass behind the eyes thinking about other things that are going on in their life. And then you see them staring at their phones.

JENNIFER BROWN: Right.

LYDIA FENET: But if you’re constantly engaging them and trying to bring them in using the tools in your toolkit, then it makes it a lot of fun for everyone, especially for me, you know?

JENNIFER BROWN: I know, exactly. And the time just passes whether you’re not feeling so great that day or whatever. I think we’re buoyed up by our audiences, and I always like being on the road because it feeds me.

LYDIA FENET: Yes.

JENNIFER BROWN: It validates my own skill and I think it validates what I feel I’m really best at in a way, which is connecting with audiences from the stage. It’s something I’ve known because I was a performer from a really early age, and I always, strangely, felt really comfortable. To me, stage fright, like you just said, ice in the veins, it’s not fright. It’s that quickening of the pulse. It’s the anticipation. It’s the excitement to see honestly what happens because I think you and I are both super improvisational.

LYDIA FENET: Yes, absolutely.

JENNIFER BROWN: You really don’t – you are steering them and you do know what the outcomes are going to be. But how you get there, it strikes me, you really change it up. You really are there with them. I do the same thing depending on whether it’s a resistant audience to my message or whether it’s super, duper the choir, like insider, insider. And I speak differently to those two groups.

But I don’t want to run out of time before we talk about something you shared with me that I thought was powerful. Back to the personal navigation of our careers and our progression and advancement and our ability to negotiate for titles and salary bumps, et cetera.

There is a lot of talk in my world about how many things are broken and biased in terms of how salaries are given. And the bias that shows up that harms people who have come into a negotiation or don’t even think to negotiate, first of all, an offer. Don’t even think to renegotiate at the right time or frequently enough. And when we do, we’re the victim of responses from the other side of the table that are less than ideal.

Women, in particular, fall behind over and over again, and it’s this compounding effect. I think your story of how you’ve negotiated your climb was so interesting to me. And I really wanted you to share some key conversations and decisions you committed to yourself, and then you walk in and you had salary conversations in your role that has enabled you to really true up, and then some, your own compensation over the years to a more, I would say, “reasonable” and fair level, but not really having started there at all.

LYDIA FENET: No. No.

JENNIFER BROWN: Like most of us, right? So, tell us about those key moments. What did you do? What did you say? What was the response? Particularly, I love your responses to responses. So, make sure you include – what did you say back to that?

LYDIA FENET: I’d been working for Christie’s for ten years when I finally realized what it meant to negotiate for a salary. And up until that point, I really believed what I had heard time and time again, it was the message that I was not only receiving, but also giving to other people who worked on my team, which was that I was working for the glamor of the job, which by the way is not a real thing. No one works for the glamor of a job. You work for a paycheck. And although you may like what you do, if you’re doing a good job, you should be getting compensated for it.

For some reason, that message didn’t apply to me in my mind and it didn’t apply to any of my friends around the same age. And I was at brunch one day with friends. I was 30 years old, I’d been head of my department for four years. And I heard a friend of mine say that she was purchasing a one-bedroom apartment. And it floored me because at that time, I was splitting a one-bedroom with one of my friends, who was moving out, and I needed to find a roommate very quickly. And there was no way on earth I was purchasing a one-bedroom apartment. I could barely afford my rent by that point.

It lit the question: What? I was so flabbergasted. And then we had a conversation afterwards where I just all of a sudden realized I was making so little money compared to what she was making in a similar job in a similar industry.

And I went home and I just wept. I sat on my bed and I wept. I could not believe that I had not even asked for anything else, that I had never put myself forward, and that I just kept saying, “Thank you,” for the money that I was receiving, despite the fact that it was very little money.

And I think that this message would particularly resonate with anyone who’s been in a company for a long time because a lot of people jump from company to company and their compensation then goes up. But when you stay in a company and you’re not asking for a raise or a bonus at any point, you’re getting basically a cost-of-living increase every year. It’s 1, 2, 3% depending on the year, which time over time is nothing, really.

And it really was the first moment in my career where I thought, “I need to go explore elsewhere.” I really loved my job and I loved what I did, but I put in so much work. I turned events into a revenue-generating department by bringing in sponsorship. So we weren’t even spending the money within our budget, we were actually bringing in outside sponsors to help pay for all of our events.

I’d changed the whole business model of my department. And, again, had no compensation, no additional conversations with anyone from HR about whether or not that was a good thing or if I could receive more compensation for it.

When I started looking externally, I went to a major liquor brand that was looking for a role very similar to the one that I had, and getting very far into the conversations. I realized at one point that the job was offering almost four times what I was making in the job that I was in at Christie’s at that point.

It was the most frustrating moment of my life. I was so upset. I felt like I had been let down by my family because I’d worked here for so long that I believed that everybody here was taking care of me and I was doing what I was supposed to be doing, so they were doing what they were supposed to be doing.

And I say in the book, you know, you have to understand, and I think that this goes back to women and emotion, that we make decisions based on emotion. So, again, what did I just say? This company seems like my family. But realistically, this company is not my family. I have a family and I love this company and I’m proud to work here, but I work for a company, this business, and a business is only going to pay you as much as they need to pay you to come to work every day. They’re not going to be handing out extra money just because.

And so after I realized this about the other company that I’d been interviewing with, I went back and came up with a plan basically for a much larger department than the one that I was already overseeing that was going to be all revenue generation, all partnerships, but on a global scale.

And I went to our chief marketing officer, who was not my boss, but was someone who I respected a lot. And he looked at it and he said out loud, “This could absolutely work. I think that this is a great plan and it would be a fantastic additional revenue stream for Christie’s.”

I then went back to my boss, who at the time I absolutely adored. But I think he believed, too, that he worked for the glory of the brand and the glamor of the job, so that made it very difficult for me to get anywhere in salary negotiations. And I went into his office and I simply sat down and said, which interestingly, I had not intended to say when I walked in the door, but it just kind of came out because I felt like I had his full attention.

I told him I was leaving in two weeks. And this was right before our big evening sales. So it was a huge shock to him. He had no one else really who could do the job and he knew that. It was really the first moment in my career where I felt empowered to negotiate and to really put my foot down and know that he needed me to be there.

And I remember he said to me, okay, because up until that point, I had burst into tears every time I’d asked for anything. He said to me, “Okay, now, don’t cry.” And I remember saying, “Why would I cry, you’re the one who’s about to lose me.”

JENNIFER BROWN: Ooh!

LYDIA FENET: And that was the first time I saw him look at me with eyes like, “Oh, God, she’s serious and she’s really going to walk out of the door in two weeks.” Within the day, the entire business plan that I had put together, my request for triple my salary, a request for a senior vice president title, and a request for an international director of strategic partnerships title had been given to HR. And they came back to me with my boss and said, “We can give you everything you want,” which was probably the most shocking thing I’d ever heard in my life, but I kept my poker face, “Except the international title. So, step one is that you create an international partnership. Step two, you get the title.”

And I slid the paper back across the table and I said, “No, you see, without a step one, there is no step two. So, I get the international title, otherwise I leave.” And I wasn’t leaving. I mean, this was the amazing thing. I didn’t actually have a job offer on the table.

JENNIFER BROWN: That is the amazing thing.

LYDIA FENET: I should have probably led with that. There was no job offer.

JENNIFER BROWN: There was no job offer.

LYDIA FENET: But at that point, I’d already put it on the line and I wasn’t going to leave. So, why not ask? And then guess what? An hour later, I had that, too. And that was the greatest lesson I’ve ever learned in my life because I walked out of that meeting and I cried. I cried and cried and cried. I wept. I couldn’t believe what just happened.

JENNIFER BROWN: The stress of it all.

LYDIA FENET: Yeah. Also to feel like I was compensated for what I deserved to make.

JENNIFER BROWN: Right.

LYDIA FENET: And all I had to do was ask. And I had never asked before and I’d never challenged it and I’d never felt confident. And I think that, for me, was really a moment that I pushed them to the wall. And, again, the funny thing was I told my guy friends this story and they were like, “Yeah, that’s great, that’s really cool that you did that.”

JENNIFER BROWN: Of course.

LYDIA FENET: I told my girlfriends the story and they could not believe it.

JENNIFER BROWN: They’re obsessed, yeah.

LYDIA FENET: It was the topic of many dinners in my 30s. There were many bottles of champagne opened. Also, the amazing thing was because I’d been able to triple my salary, I didn’t have to get a roommate, so I took over that one-bedroom as my own. And what a feeling that was.

JENNIFER BROWN: What a feeling.

LYDIA FENET: I remember going to the leasing office and signing that lease and it was like everything had finally come together. That, for me, is a story that I love to share. It’s in the book. Everyone at Christie’s has read it, which makes me feel ever better, strangely, because I’m not even sure a lot of them knew that story until the book came out. It’s a story that needs to be told because, again, guys were like, “Of course you did that. Of course you faked a job offer and asked for three times your salary, I would do that on a Tuesday.” And to the women, I say to them, “Go do it.” You have to understand, if you’re not going to get it, that’s okay, too, but at least now you know. And next year, your boss knows you’re going to be coming in there with guns a-blazing asking for more.

JENNIFER BROWN: I love this. This is so important. And I want all of our male listeners on The Will to Change to notice this story because how you can support and encourage and help people – friends that you mentor or whatever female professional in your life that my be looking at this exact same transaction in a completely different way. I really hope people are listening to that.

This is what I talk about. When we support each other, we need to bear in mind how our identity might be impacting things like our confidence, our skills, the way we tackle something, whether we tackle something. I think a lot of us aren’t even ever told that this is what you’re supposed to do. And this is just normal ways of doing business and no one’s going to look out for you except for you. And ask for more. Ask for so much that it scares you.

LYDIA FENET: Yes. In my book, I don’t know if you read the case study that Gemma Burgess did, but one of my favorite case studies in the book, because the book has 30 different women and their experiences with the topics of each of the chapters.

And the best advice that she ever received in negotiation is to make them wince. If you didn’t make them wince, then you didn’t ask for enough. And I thought it was so genius. And it really forces you to think much larger than you would have.

Ultimately, you will get more than you would have if you’d only asked for a little. And so I’ve said it to so many people. I have friends who use it as a hashtag now, “Make ’em wince.”

JENNIFER BROWN: Make ’em wince. Make ’em wince. On that note, wincing with a gavel in your hand.

LYDIA FENET: Indeed.

JENNIFER BROWN: And don’t be afraid to pound it and take your seat and place on the stage.

LYDIA FENET: Yes.

JENNIFER BROWN: Lydia, this has been incredible. Please tell our audience where they can find your book and any other resources you want to point them towards that they can find you and be inspired by you.

LYDIA FENET: Absolutely. The book is on Amazon. It’s The Most Powerful Woman in the Room is You, it has a bright pink and red cover, you can’t miss it. I also did a proprietary edition at Target, so there’s a letter written in the front. Please go check that out.

And I also say go to your small independent bookstores. I’m a huge reader, and I love nothing more than diving into a book. I’m not an e-book person yet. But I will say that our bookstores are the ones that we want to keep afloat, so make sure that you’re buying through those as well.

JENNIFER BROWN: Excellent advice. I’m glad you brought that up. I’m going to actually borrow that for every time I’m asked that question as well.

LYDIA FENET: You can also follow me on Instagram @LydiaFenet if you want to see the stages that I’m hitting and the fun celebrities that I get to be on stage with.

JENNIFER BROWN: Oh, my gosh, I’m sure our audience will eat that up. Thank you, Lydia, so much. Best of luck with your book. It’s out in April.

LYDIA FENET: Yes.

JENNIFER BROWN: Which now we are in as of this recording, 2019. Everyone, it will be out by the time we air this episode. Really think about everything Lydia said about the stagecraft and how to work with an audience of one or two or thousands at Madison Square Garden, which who knows, some of our audience I’m sure would love to be there someday and really think about how we use our voice, how we want to make them wince, but in a good way and really stick to our guns in terms of what we want and deserve in life.

Thank you so much, Lydia, for joining me today.

LYDIA FENET: Thank you so much for having me, Jennifer. You’re such a force and I’m thrilled to be on this incredible podcast. So, thank you.

JENNIFER BROWN: Thank you.

USEFUL LINKS

Lydia Fenet