Case Study: Sotheby’s


Above All, Relationships

Expansion depended on communicating, both within Sotheby’s and with clients.

The Challenge

Sotheby’s: the most respected global auction house. The name is synonymous with deep expertise and sophistication. At their gleaming, glass-wrapped Manhattan tower, I found scholars with a true passion for their work, and a culture of fine management, where every detail merits careful attention, from client emails to the rigorous, respectful handling of each piece of art. Shipping, complaints, inquiries, finance, are all tackled with great care.

But when they brought me in in 2009, their presentations weren’t up to these high standards. They weren’t conveying to prospective buyers enough of their deep love for collectibles and art work. The rising young cohort Sotheby’s needs, for global expansion, could sometimes be too technical, too scholarly, too academic in their talks. Their skill set may not have included the ability to close sales or to cement precious relationships.

Likewise, they weren’t communicating well enough internally, across departments. To grow, they’ll need to share information about the impact of new tax laws or the workings of a new payment system. Every working part impacts the others.

The problem could have stymied Sotheby’s rapid expansion into emerging markets overseas. I was called in to help polish up-and-coming “rising talent.” Their smooth communication–within and without—would be crucial for Sotheby’s to succeed in a newly competitive, challenging international environment.

The Solution

I designed and offered a series of one-and-half day workshops for small groups of no more than 10. We consciously created mix groups from across the company–directors, specialists, client relationship mangers, people from finance, credit, security, shipping, HR–to share best practices and information.

Their presentations needed to reflect Sotheby’s expertise, to immediately demonstrate their comfort with the art world, to establish credibility with a knowledgeable discerning, international clientele. (And what an amazing thrill to conduct the training in a conference room surrounded by original masterpieces by Picasso, Matisse, Pissarro, and Bonnard!) But beyond knowledge, my trainees needed to showcase something else: passion. The expert’s knowledge wasn’t enough. They had to stop going too fast or glossing over things because they assumed everyone already knew. Indeed, they often didn’t realize the profundity of their insights.

And finally they had to learn not to be afraid to ask for a sale–not to be overly cautious, to remember the business side. To hone in on a listener’s motivation – whether to outdo a competing collector, or to complete a prized collection.

The results were dramatic, significant changes in presentations, at all levels.

My Approach

It’s nerve-wracking, perhaps intimidating, to make a presentation and receive feedback in front of esteemed colleagues. So as facilitator, I established an environment of comfort and safety. I helped trainees see what they did well–illuminating for each one what his or her best strengths are, to encourage and empower them as speakers. I showed them what worked, and how much I’ve learned. Then we focused on tweaking it: To improve the flow by adding stories. To share their joy and love for the work, to point out what captures their attention.

I helped them learn to tell stories, to guide the audience’s eye, to be more personal and less bookish. To share their love–what it feels like when they see greatness, their excitement at the beauty of a certain yellow, or the grace of a line, or another painting it reminds them of, the connections one work has with another.

After 12 sessions of training, I was invited into the auction room during what would become the all-time largest sale ever, when a Rothko painting sold for $75 million. I understood then, looking around at all the people from my workshops, how a company that can achieve this works like a well-oiled machine. The painting seemed to have sold itself, yet nothing could be further from the truth. I had witnessed the movement of a magnificent ocean liner, with all its working parts in harmony. That’s what made the voyage seem so effortless.

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“As a facilitator, Patricia was highly effective – she was polished and professional and thus was able to quickly establish credibility with our audience of sophisticated professionals. At the same time, she was warm and encouraging, and provided constructive feedback in a way that empowered our employees.”

“Overall, in working with external training providers, Sotheby’s holds high standards for both style and substance. Patricia ranks as one of the best with whom we’ve worked and we look forward to partnering with her on future programs.”

Vice President, Learning and Development, Worldwide Human Resources, Sotheby’s

“The impressive progress we all made between the first and second presentation, the latter based on your system, was a definitive proof of its efficiency and yet so surprisingly easy to apply!

This said I would like to add that it was your warmth and compassion that made us more confident in pushing our limits and, by doing so, achieving better results. I specially appreciated how you reviewed our presentations enhancing their positive aspects first and then carefully suggesting adjustments instead of raw criticism, so that none of us would feel embarrassed or lose motivation. Building on the positive is something I shall take with me as a side benefit of your workshop!”

Sotheby’s Presidente-Administradora – Brasil[/box]

Specific Tools used:

  • Customized design
  • Small group workshops
  • Videotaping and feedback
  • Interview Training
  • Individual coaching
  • Follow-up training

Photo Credit: Judith Argila via Compfight cc