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7:00pm EDT February 23, 2009

When Rich Preziotti joined Vertellus Specialties Inc. in December 2007, he saw an organization that was one company on paper but two separate entities in the workplace. Vertellus was formed in July 2006 with the merger of Reilly Industries and Rutherford Chemicals, but little had been done to join the two companies together beyond giving them a common name. “They had put the two businesses together, but they didn’t have any real connection other than some product overlap,” says Preziotti, who took over as president and CEO in December 2007. Employees often wore uniforms bearing the name of the company they worked for before the merger and some of the company’s plants were still going by old company names that didn’t exist anymore. Vertellus had no identity to call its own. In addition, the company had a culture where employees weren’t engaged with the corporate goals and there wasn’t enough accountability for how people achieved goals.

Preziotti knew things needed to change if the 800-employee specialty chemical provider was to move forward and keep growing and innovating.

In short, he needed to build a new culture.

His ability to do so successfully helped Vertellus hit $450 million in 2007 revenue, up from $425 million in 2006. Revenue is expected to top $550 million for 2008.

Here’s how Preziotti built a winning team.

Build camaraderie
Preziotti worked to unify the disparate parts of Vertellus, but he started the process outside the company’s walls.

He says one of the best ways to bring your employees together and build camaraderie is to get them involved in projects outside of the day-to-day routine of their jobs.

“We do things where we go out to dinner together as part of our monthly leadership meeting,” Preziotti says. “It just helps build that sense of trust and camaraderie amongst each other. We’ll not only do a dinner, we’ll do some kind of fun team building. Instead of a regular dinner, you go to a place where you actually prepare the meal. You’re working together as a team where you’re going to prepare the meal together.”

The idea is to find ways to solve problems that lack urgency but engage creativity.

“You’re not working together in that tense work environment,” Preziotti says. “You’re getting to see another part of everybody that you work with on a regular basis. You tend to have more compassion, and I think that ultimately makes you function better as a team. You’re not going to blame each other. You’re going to fundamentally dig in and do whatever it takes to help a team member who may have an issue that they can’t solve on their own.”

An additional bonus to doing things outside of work is that it allows you to observe how people work together and who the natural leaders are.

For even better results, get employees involved in planning some of the team-building outings.

“You just have to try doing different things,” Preziotti says.

“You’re not going to know instinctively. If you have a diverse team with different sets of backgrounds, there’s no one thing that’s going to work for everybody. Especially if your team has a diverse makeup, you’re going to have to vary those activities you do so that you’re acknowledging everybody as you move on through the company.”

Work can often be a grind and a source of stress. When you can inject fun into the mix and make people feel good about working at your company, you need to do it.

“If you’re not having fun when you are working and if you don’t have a sense of humor and a sense of humility about what you do, then you’re taking it too seriously,” Preziotti says. “When people are having fun and they know that they can poke fun at their teammates back and forth, it just helps to build that working relationship.”

Don’t be a dictator
Preziotti wanted employees at Vertellus to be more engaged with the overall goals of the company and wanted them to feel like they were part of the process.

“When you engage people in the process, you clearly have better buy-in and better ownership of the decisions that you are making,” Preziotti says. “It needs to be a melding of bottoms up and top down. How do you do that? You hold people accountable. You empower them to go make decisions.”

You need to give employees objectives and let them figure out how they’re going to work to meet those objectives.

“You’re not telling them how to do it,” Preziotti says. “You’re agreeing on what it is we need to accomplish. They are developing what the plans are and looking to the leader for consultation and advice and coaching.”

It’s a good way to reinforce the idea that you don’t have all the answers and that your people, if given the chance to open their minds and think freely, may be able to help solve some of your problems.

“Your goal is to help people in that function or within that business to think differently about their levels of expertise and help them optimize it,” Preziotti says. “We encouraged them to ask questions and they asked questions. We encouraged them to raise issues. At first, it was a little more difficult, but eventually they opened up. Once they do, you have to show you are going to take actions around the issues they raised. If you don’t, you lose a lot of credibility.”

Getting past the fear of retribution for bringing up problems can be a challenge. Preziotti has had success by fielding anonymous questions.

“Issues can be raised, but the individual doesn’t have to tie the issue to themselves,” he says. “Once the issue is out, you can have a debate on it.”

Getting people to open up and put their talents to use for the company is more the responsibility of the individual than it is the responsibility of the leader.

“A good leader makes the organization around him better,” Preziotti says. “They lead an organization that gets results and performance and ultimately he or she makes the employees that are in that organization better.

“A company’s responsibility is the processes and procedures to help develop, coach and mentor you. If people have a certain skill set that could be used someplace else and they have a desire to use that or they think it would help the company, the onus is on them to communicate that.”

Set common behaviors
Preziotti spends most of his time thinking about the business at a high level. With 60 percent of its revenue coming in from outside the United States, he’s often thinking in global terms.

But no matter the size of your business, you still need to occasionally delve in to the details to make things happen and to keep everyone on the same page — especially when you’re trying to build a culture bridging employees who aren’t used to working together.

“If you have an issue that is really complicated, you have to be willing to spend the time to get the detail and understand it,” Preziotti says.

One of the things Preziotti felt was critical to bringing the company together was addressing the behavior of his employees. This isn’t behavior in the sense of good or bad but rather behavior in terms of the way work gets done.

“The company has been good at giving people objectives and having goals versus those objectives and putting together development plans,” Preziotti says. “One of the things lacking a little bit was behaviors. What are the behaviors that we want our employees to have? We rated people on how well they met their objectives and what people felt their development plans and their needs were but not how they went about doing their work.”

Preziotti is a big believer in 360-degree reviews, soliciting feedback for individuals from people that work for them.

“If you want people to give candid feedback to an individual, the inputs have to be anonymous,” Preziotti says. “If I’m working with a peer who I think is an idiot because of X, Y and Z, more than likely, Joe is not going to write that about Jack if Jack knows Joe wrote it. The whole idea about a 360 review is to get at people’s blind spots.”

By addressing these issues and raising concerns that might not come up in a public forum, you can get at some of the underlying concerns that might be holding your culture back.

Whether it’s through an independent party or through a direct supervisor, the point of the 360 review is to provide information and develop a plan to fix your flaws.

“Take a look at the feedback and say, ‘How do I change my approach to incorporate that feedback to make me a better employee or a better leader?’” Preziotti says.

Your role is to convince employees to take the reviews seriously.

“You just have to impress upon people that this is an important part of how we develop people,” Preziotti says. “Be somewhat of a nag to the people who are supposed to be contributing to the process. If you get 360 feedback that doesn’t have a lot of commentary on it, then maybe you need to actively solicit it.”

And when an issue is raised that you feel has merit, you need to take action.

“We move forward, and we communicate that we have taken action on a suggestion that somebody has made,” Preziotti says.

When employees come through for you and meet a challenge, you need to reward them.

“You have a set of objectives and your goal is to meet those objectives,” Preziotti says. “Our goal as a company is to meet the financial commitments that we make to the board and also do the things that we’re supposed to be doing from a strategic perspective that will set the business up to ultimately be more successful in the long run. ... If a team or individual has gone above and beyond the call or achieved something special with respect to a project or an individual effort, you find the way to reward and recognize them.”

You’ll know your culture is working when people show the ability to embrace conflict in a way that leads to a healthy debate of issues and ultimately, better decisions.

“You will come out with a better answer, a better solution, a better decision than on a team that doesn’t debate issues,” Preziotti says. “On our team, it’s perfectly acceptable for any of the team members to push back on me if they don’t agree with the direction I’m going in. But once we make a decision as a team, we’re a united front to the rest of the organization.”

In developing a unified culture, you have to set the example for your employees.

“If you’re asking people to do certain things and behave in certain ways and embrace a certain kind of culture, if you don’t embrace that, why would they?” Preziotti says. “It’s an old adage, but you have to lead by example.”

HOW TO REACH: Vertellus Specialties Inc., (317) 247-8141 or www.vertellus.com