Lydia Fenet on the Power of Working Mothers Plus, what “having it all” means to you.

By Babe | Images courtesy of Lydia Fenet

Trigger warning: the following interview might make you feel a little less than. It may prompt questions like, Should I be more motivated? Should I launch a side hustle? Am I truly grabbing life by the you-know-what? At least that’s how we felt after speaking with Lydia Fenet, global managing director of strategic partnerships and lead benefit auctioneer at Christie’s Auction House AND best-selling author and mama of three. As a true professional rockstar, whose book The Most Powerful Woman in the World is You offers strategies, statistics and personal anecdotes on commanding an audience and inspiring confidence at work, Lydia is something of an expert on living a big, busy life, whether that means hustling to school drop off, jetting to London for a quick meeting or selling multi-million-dollar works of art with the clank of her gavel. Were it not for her painfully keen self-awareness at self-deprecating humor, one might feel intimidated by her tenacity, but Lydia’s success stems from her ability to raise people up, inspire and motivate, which is how we felt after chatting with her. Here, Lydia takes on everything from what truly defines power, to the joy of working and how defining what you want out of life is the path to success. 

Let’s go back to the beginning. How did your first maternity leave go?

What I found the most interesting were the comments that happened while I was pregnant. A lot of women said to me over the course of my first pregnancy, “Enjoy working while you can because you can’t do it with a child.” First of all, there’s an assumption there that you don’t have to work, which was very much not true. But also there was an assumption that once you had a child, didn’t want to – or could not – handle it all. That was constantly thrown in my face. It never occurred to me that I couldn’t do it. 

It’s interesting, people saying that only made me want to do it more. But when I went on leave, I turned off my phone and didn’t turn it back on until post-leave. I told my team that I hired an incredibly talented group of people and this was their opportunity to rise. “I taught you how to do it,” I told them. “It’s time to use your brains and figure out your path.” It was scary to them but they really embraced it. By the time I got back, the entire team had elevated. Meanwhile I was working to match where I had been, but as a result it pushed me to work harder. It was an exciting outcome and not something I expected at all. It allowed me to let go of things I held on firmly to because I had been at my company for so long. Suddenly I wasn’t getting asked the same questions anymore. Suddenly my time was freed up and I wasn’t getting pulled into the bottom level to deal with things.

That sounds like it was a success. How did you take that experience and apply it to your role as a manager?

Juggling having a baby and being back at work is intense, especially if you’re breastfeeding. I remember with my first, it was me pumping in a room in front of my entire team. I had to go to another building, where they allotted a pumping room (basically an office with a door) three times per day and then I’d go home to make it in time for the last feeding. That first year is such an incredible balancing act. You’re emotionally and physically exhausted. You want to rise to be the person you are at work but also be the mom you want to be at home. I say to bosses of women, if you let your teams have the space they need to make it through that year, you’ll have a loyal employee for a long time. It’s so intense and making it through that first year is a huge win. After that year it’s not as overwhelming. I truly believe that. Dig into that first year and cover them. They’ll pay it back over the course of their career.

I had been at my company for 13 years when I had my first child. I was running my team globally. Everyone at my company knew my work ethic at that point. For me, it became more about setting an example for people coming behind me. I’ve always had a strong personality, I’m a leader by nature. So I felt it was important for me to set an example for other people. That meant talking about pumping or telling people my kids were sick, so they’d understand eventually. It’s not as easy as it might look when people gloss it over. People do have lives outside of office walls. Pre Covid-19 in New York you could pretend it didn’t exist, but by normalizing it, it becomes normal.

Speaking of Covid-19, are you enjoying any aspects of this new normal, and do think anything will linger on in terms of how we work?

I hope so – in some respects. I do think working from home works, but I miss being in an office. I love the ability to work in a place without kids, but also I traveled so much for work. I would spend one day in California or London for a meeting. And now a Zoom call can replace some of it, though not all of it. But I became so used to the frequency of travel and its grueling nature, that I would cut corners to make motherhood possible. I remember I once went to California twice in one week. My husband asked me why didn’t I just stay? I told him I wanted to see the kids. And so now that’s very easy. I just jump on a Zoom and have the same conversation. I do hope there will be some elements about Covid-19 life that will stay.

I also think what we can learn moving forward is that we’re always talking about having such a nonstop, busy, crazy life. I have learned in the last three months about being in one place and staying centered and present. I learned a lot of lessons about how busy I need to be to be happy, and it’s not as busy as I once thought. I still need to be busy. But also there’s a beauty in stillness I never experienced before and I’m embracing it and keeping it as part of our family.

Did you initiate any change in your schedule or life upon becoming a mother?

I remember I spoke to my boss and said that on Fridays, I’d like to work from home. That was seven years ago and I remember he said, “Well, is that going to keep you here longer?” I said, “Absolutely.” And it worked because I do my work. For me, I was definitely able to create the path I wanted to create with kids and I feel now that it’s such a gift. I let the team now do the same. It keeps them happy.

I say to bosses of women, if you let your teams have the space they need to make it through that year, you’ll have a loyal employee for a long time.

What’s a piece of advice you’d give to new moms facing their return to work?

To remember that every part of pregnancy and having a child is a season, and that some elements are more taxing than others. It’s more exhausting and different than during other times. Also, just because something is not working now, just take the appropriate steps to make yourself feel like you can handle it and realize it won’t be forever. I remember the early stages of “two under two” and working. I had auctions at night and worked during the day and I was so at the end of my rope. I think back and yes, it was crazy but now I don’t have that level of sheer physical exhaustion. It’s just different now. My kids sleep through the night and I’m not worrying about diapers. I’m not putting together 900 things to get out the door. Just understand that people say it goes quickly for a reason. It does go quickly, but it also feels slow at the time. Try to understand you won’t be in that state forever.

The million dollar question: can you have it all?

I truly believe you can do it all as long as you know what your all is. The year I wrote my book, my career was on fire. I was taking auctions every night, I wrote a book in three months. My third child was barely a year old. It was so crazy but so fulfilling. But I can tell you for the other 6,000 people I know, that would be their personal hell. It’s so exciting and dynamic and it was everything I wanted, and I felt so in charge and empowered by all the things I was doing. So I say to people all the time, don’t believe you can’t have it all, but figure out what you want and go for it. Figure out what you can do. I have a friend who likes to sleep for 12 hours each night. So for her, she has a different idea of success. If that’s what she wants to achieve as success for her, great. 

I’m of the belief that life is a buffet, so you should take as much as you can from it, but I feel like that is who I am at the core. The guilt from work is hard for sure, but the best thing to do is constantly remind yourself, do I have an option not to work? Because for most people, it’s not even a question. But if you don’t, yet it’s something you want to do and you enjoy doing it, by all means go back to work and enjoy it. Enjoy your time using your brain with other educated people in a room. I remember my friend who works at a bank told me she was with a bunch of male coworkers, and they said, “We’re lucky our wives don’t have to work,” and said, “I love to work. I don’t have to be at work, but I love to work.” There’s something to be said about using your brain outside of school.

Who is truly the most powerful woman in the room?

I think a new mom is the most powerful woman in the room. Good lord you just birthed a child. Is there anything more powerful than having a baby? My eyes were so open after my first child. What women go through – there was nothing I couldn’t do after that experience. You’re literally growing a human and feeding it with your body. It makes work seem so insignificant. I sometimes lean back on it in moments of weakness or doubt, and I think about having three kids and mothering them through the first years of life. If that’s not an accomplishment and doesn’t give me more power, I don’t know what else does.