By Stan Linhors syracuse.com
Joella Viscusi is founder, owner, and president of Ambient Environmental Inc.
Ambient, headquartered in Albany, provides comprehensive environmental, health and safety solutions related to hazardous building materials management; industrial hygiene, site safety, site investigation, remediation, and restoration; and regulatory compliance.
Viscusi said the company is broadening its environmental and construction services and expanding throughout Upstate.
Tell me about growing up and early leadership roles.
I grew up in a small town called Charlton, which is out past Burnt Hills toward Galway. It’s cow country. (Laughs) It’s in Saratoga County. I grew up between two big farms.My parents (Joan and Tony Viscusi) were a big influence. My mom, for the most part, was a stay-at-home mom. I looked to her as a role model. My father worked to provide for our family. They gave us good morals and direction – work hard and you can do what you aspire to do.
From the time I could speak, my Uncle Bob (Arsenault) said I always told him I was the boss. Uncle Bob was a big influence. I always looked up to him. I always listened to what he had to say. When I told him I was the boss, he said I can be whatever I want to be. That stuck with me, and here I am – I’m the boss.
What advice would you give someone to be a good leader?
A good leader leads by example and not just with words. They have the ability to set a vision and inspire others. They have walked their talk.
I’ve been in the field and done the work. I’ve been in the crawl spaces. I’ve been on the rooftops. I’ve taken the samples. When I’m describing to somebody how I want a particular project done, they trust me, because I’ve done it. I’m not just reading it out of a textbook.
To be an effective leader, you have to know your industry. I did and still do a lot of reading on my own. You keep learning.
Have an open-door policy. People can come and ask me anything. I’m not one of those owners or bosses that keeps the door shut and stays behind a closed door. I’m there with the employees. They’re welcome to ask me questions whenever they want – I want them to ask questions. I don’t give the impression that they’re bothering me. An open door inspires people to want to do a good job.
How does that inspire?
Oh gosh, I mean – I think it makes them feel comfortable, and I think they know they have the respect of the leader.
I don’t make rash decisions. I talk to the team, and I ask what they think. Their opinions matter. Their knowledge matters. What they think about the next steps of the company matters. I take what they say into consideration. I try to make their job easier.
It makes them want to be part of the team. It makes them want to give their opinions and experiences. They’re out in the field every day, so bring back to me what you’re seeing. What do you want changed? What are you having difficulty with?
As an entrepreneur, starting with no employees, you had your hands on everything. As a company grows, how does a leader shift from doing the work herself to delegating and trusting others to do the work?
I had to learn. As the person who owned the company, I thought that you had to know everything and you had to do everything and you had to be successful at everything for your company to be successful.
Through some of the groups I belong to, especially the Women Presidents Organization, we discuss our business issues. That allowed me to open up and say: I’m drowning here. It’s hard for me to do everything now. We’re getting bigger.
I learned to allow other people in to help. For instance, I’m not great at the financial aspect of it. But I’ve now brought people in who are.
Asking for help is not a sign of failure; it is a sign of success.
What qualities do you see in effective leadership and leaders you admire?
My biggest thing is honesty. The leader has to be true and genuine. That to me is the most important quality. You can teach technical expertise, but you can’t teach someone to be a better person. So, honesty, being genuine, being your authentic self are important in a leader.
Good leaders have deep expert knowledge of their particular industry, but they know when they’re not an expert in a particular arena. They allow someone in for help. To me, a leader doesn’t lie and doesn’t fake it. A leader will admit: I don’t know the answer to that, but I’m going to find it out for you.
A leader doesn’t just make something up. They are true and genuine.
When you think of an ineffective leader, what attributes do you see?
A non-communicator. Someone who doesn’t listen, who doesn’t allow people to give feedback. Someone who has a closed-door policy, who’s not willing to listen to their team, not willing to take the information from out in the field, to bring it back to the table.
A poor leader says: I don’t care if it’s right or wrong, this is the way I want it done. They lose respect of employees.
You’ve got to listen to your team. You’ve got to take it all in. If you don’t, if you’re being a dictator, that’s not being a leader.
What makes a person a dictator?
It sounds redundant: Someone who is not willing to listen to what you have to say, someone who just wants it done their way.
Tell me about a challenge you’ve had and how you overcame it, so we can learn from your experience.
By far, the biggest thing is being a woman in this industry.
Your company is in a male-dominated field?
It is – very much so.
Starting out in this field, there was a lot to overcome. The remarks on a job site. The snide remarks on why I won a bid and someone else didn’t. The jokes: Oh, you’re just here to make the coffee. It was tough to keep going back, meeting after meeting, when you knew they were going to say: What’s Joella wearing to the meeting?
It was hard to overcome, and it was hard to keep going back. I felt I had to prove myself much more than a man did. That was discouraging, because I had more knowledge than my co-workers at the time.
How did you overcome the sexism and stereotyping?
Knowledge. Proving that I knew what I was doing. And the fact that I actually did the work. When I worked for other people, they said I couldn’t go to at meeting alone. They said: You’re not a man. It’s going to be nothing but 20 contractors in there.
I made sure I was fully prepared for any meeting, that I knew the answer to every question they could potentially ask.
Tell me about starting in this field.
My degree is in marketing. I started at an environmental company as an administrative assistant, answering phones, filing. It was a small company, so everybody helped out in different departments. I’d go out in the field with the guys, and I’d take the notes, and carry the samples. I started putting the reports together for all the fieldwork that was done. The amount of regulations around hazardous materials was intriguing. It may sound weird, but it was interesting to me.
The boss that I had at the time allowed me to go to the classes that he taught, but would never certify me in anything because my place was taking notes and being a secretary and answering phones. I was told that many times by many different people. That just gave me the ambition to keep moving forward and say: Well, I can do this. You can’t tell me I can’t do this because my uncle said I can do it. He said I could be the boss. (Laughs)
I spent many nights reading regulations. At meetings, I would be able to give an answer when others could not. One of the guys always had to go a meeting with me. That being said, when the guys were asked a question, they would turn to me and say: Hey, Joella, what do you think about that? I’d give the answer.
Slowly but surely, the respect in the industry came. I knew what I was doing. My roles expanded. My titles expanded. A lot of this self-taught information led me to start my own company.
What advice would you give a woman who wants to start her own business in a male-dominated industry?
If that’s what you want to do, then just do it. You have to ignore the comments. You have to ignore the remarks that you can’t do it. You have to look people in the eye when you give them an answer or direct them on a project.
I could have given up very easily when I was told, straight out, you don’t belong here.
I don’t want that to discourage people. I want to get the point across: You are going to have a lot of things throughout your career that are just going to make you want to curl up in a little ball and throw your hands up and say, I’m done.
Above all, act confident. You gain respect. I’ve built a lot of respect in the industry now.
And I’m enjoying it.