Women who are just starting out in their careers, or those planning their next moves, will devour Lydia Fenet’s new book, The Most Powerful Woman in the Room Is You. Others may wish they had been able to take advantage of her advice earlier, but will still benefit from her insights. Using her own experiences, rising within the ranks to become managing director and global head of partnerships at Christie’s Auction House, Lydia challenges outdated notions about how women should handle themselves in the workplace, while providing valuable information for successfully using her strategies.
We’re pulled in immediately with her first chapter, “Use the Strike Method.” Her “strike” is the deafening CRACK she delivers with her gavel at the beginning of an auction. Besides becoming Lydia’s “signature move,” bringing down that gavel helps to calm and center her and sends a message: “I’m in charge. Pay attention.” (It’s hard not to think of another powerful woman also using a gavel, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.) Of course, not every woman uses a gavel in her profession, so Lydia suggests finding whatever gesture or opening line can provide the reassurance and confidence needed, whether addressing an audience of hundreds or a conference room of ten.
While Lydia’s advice is meaningful, her backstory, becoming a sought after auctioneer, is what helps propel the narrative. No, she doesn’t talk fast. “I’m not selling livestock,” she has said. And when people ask her what are the most expensive things she’s ever sold at auction, she has to explain that she’s not selling Picassos or Monets. She’s a benefit auctioneer, helping to raise funds that organizations critically need to continue their valuable work.
Many of us have attended benefit auctions, whether for a charity, or at one of our children’s schools. (One year, the auctioneer at my daughter’s school was Dan Ackroyd, who kept the audience engaged and energized.) But when the auctioneer is not a celebrity and comes across as stiff and detached, not only is the experience disappointing, chances are not much money will be raised. That’s where Lydia excels, continually fine tuning her methods, often exceeding whatever goal the charity has set.
Benefit auctions often feature three ways people can donate: the silent auction, where items are laid out on tables and bids can be written on paper; the live auction, where higher priced items are bid on in present time; and, the paddle raise, where attendees are asked to contribute a certain amount to support the cause. Lydia is candid in laying out the challenge for the latter. “One minute the guests are engaged in frenetic bidding as they try to win the luxury vacation of a lifetime, and the next minute you are asking them to bid…on nothing.”
During a black-tie benefit gala for New Yorkers for Children, Lydia knew she needed a better strategy. She was told that the goal was $250,000 but asked not to reveal that to the audience. Not only did she not honor that request, she raised the goal to $300,000. She pulled the audience together with a challenge: “You guys are going to crush that number because there are 500 people in the room and every single one of you can give something.” She started the bidding at $50,000, someone bit, “and we were off to the races.” The goal was reached and Lydia exited the stage in tears to find the organization’s executive director also crying.
While some of the advice Lydia gives can be found in other books for women – network, negotiate for that title and a better salary, keep your word, lead by example – her take on these topics seems fresh and there’s always a new audience eager to listen. Portions of the book may alienate some readers. Chapter eight lays out Lydia’s daily schedule, beginning when she wakes at 6:30 a.m. and ending with her getting into bed at midnight. And because she meets so many celebrities, the name dropping, while true, may have little relevance to other women’s lives. Still, she presents these subjects in a matter-of-fact way and even when she’s rubbing elbows with Bruce Springsteen or Matt Damon, she hasn’t lost that “pinch-me-I’m-dreaming” attitude. She comes across as authentic, someone who would not be talking to someone while looking over that person’s shoulder hoping to find someone more powerful to engage with.
Sprinkled throughout the book are pages filled with quotes from other successful women. Many of these entries we’ve read before. (How many times do we have to learn about Barbara Corcoran’s strategy for making it onto Sharktank?) What Lydia has to say is far more entertaining and interesting. She truly wields that gavel.