Alex G. Sciulli isn’t afraid to ask questions, especially when it helps him get to know employees and customers.
“A lot of people think, ‘Well, if I ask a question, they’re going to think I’m really dumb,” says the president and chief operating officer of RJ Lee Group Inc. “It’s a good thing to be aware that you’re not going to know every answer.”
Through questions, Sciulli investigates people’s personalities — a mindset not far off for the $35 million company, which he calls an “industrial CSI” because his 250 employees are investigators in materials characterization and forensic engineering.
Smart Business spoke to Sciulli about how locker-room chemistry affects the game.
Q. What skills do leaders need?
What makes a good leader is not IQ but EQ, or emotional quotient. Let’s face it, Mr. Spock was a valuable asset on the Starship Enterprise, but he had no emotions, little empathy. Leaders need to exhibit a self-awareness of their skills and limitations. They must have the interpersonal and social skills to address the needs of the customer and the key staff providing the service.
You have to be a good listener. How does the customer differentiate your company from another company? The first way is through your interpersonal skills. You have to pass that test first. Then the second thing is that you have to take their problem on as your own.
Q. How do you teach employees to interact with clients?
When I’ve gone on sales calls with junior people, they want to say something about the company or something they’ve done previously. What the customer really wants is, ‘Tell me how you would solve that problem.’ You wouldn’t be sitting here if they didn’t think you were qualified. So at that point, you turn off the sales pitch and you’re on execute mode. Ask a lot of questions about how do you define the problem, what are the biggest issues that you face, what keeps you up at night, if you had a perfect world, what would you do?
You try to get [employees] exposed to how you approach a customer. Sometimes it’s as simple as when you’re in a client’s office, you have to be very observant. You have to look at the pictures on the wall. You have to look at the degrees. What did the client think was important to put on his wall: a hole-in-one certificate or pictures of the family? These things start conversations, and then you start to become a confidant.
… I tell [employees], ‘When the customer begins to talk, let them finish. When the customer mentioned the following, that was a good opportunity for you to interject about this.’ So it’s coaching done in a constructive fashion. You give them some encouragement and you say, ‘Here’s some things I would have done maybe a little differently,’ and then they grow.
Q. How do you interact with employees?
I get my cup of coffee and walk around, knock on your cubicle and start a conversation. Recently, I went into an employee’s cubicle and noticed a picture of Oprah Winfrey. I said, ‘Tell me what your connection is.’ Her sister works on [Oprah’s] staff. So it led to, ‘What do you like about Oprah?’
Or [it] might be a picture of kids with a soccer ball or something. I get to know the employees, what makes them go, what organizations are they a part of, why [they’re] involved. It just helps me get to know who they are and how I can help them in the everyday business environment.
Q. What’s the benefit of connecting with employees?
When I asked this one highly acclaimed CEO, ‘What do you attribute your success to?’ he said, ‘Lots of people wanted me to succeed.’ Sometimes one of the main benefits is people want to do this for you. They want you to be successful and, of course, they’re counting on you, that you’ll be looking out for them, as well.
Chemistry in the locker room has a great deal to do with how people will react on the field. If you care about your teammate, you have more of a tendency to work as a team.
Watch the interaction in meetings. You gauge how one person may propose an idea; what’s the reaction from the rest of the group? Does the rest of the group react, ‘Oh, that’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard of,’ or do they react by adding to the idea?
A lot of people have learned over time to work very independently and sometimes very autonomously. I try to break that down through group discussions about a particular project; I always bring other people in to get involved.
People will watch how I react to a question, saying, ‘I don’t know the answer to that. What do you suggest?’ Sort of like follow the leader — ‘Oh, he wants to have a very open meeting; anybody can give a suggestion.’
Q. How do employee relationships affect client relationships?
You have to understand who’s best to be in front of the customer. You have to obviously understand who your customer is. Some customers are so technically oriented [that] they only want to talk to somebody who is on the same technical level. I have certain customers that wouldn’t know a test tube from a tire iron. They don’t want the scientist; they want somebody who’s going to be their account manager.
Part of the business acumen of how this all comes together is as you get to know your staff and you get to know the personalities, you can tell who you should bring to the meeting for a particular client.