Case:  John Cowles - FXI

Case Studies

Case: John Cowles - FXI

FXI is a $1 billion privately held company that manufactures flexible polyurethane foam for a wide range of applications, from car seats to dialysis machines. It has 2,000 employees and is located in Media, Pennsylvania. John Cowles was named president and CEO of FXI in May 2011.

As the freshly minted president and CEO of FXI, how have you gone about gathering intelligence for making key decisions?

After meeting with members of my board, I met once a week with each of the top senior leaders of FXI. I’ve also conducted 5 Town Halls and in the process of visiting all 17 plants, the top 10 customers, and our top 3 vendors.

What are your favorite intelligence-gathering questions?

The two that I find most fruitful are: “Tell me what makes our company successful?” and “What do we need to do differently to be more successful?”

How do you deal with the natural wariness that members of your top team may feel about you?

I structure my initial meetings with them. To get to know them personally; I ask who they are, what they have accomplished, and where they want to go. I like to get to know my team early in the process.

What kinds of questions do you ask senior leaders to get them to self-reveal?

I ask: “What drives you? What makes you happy? What do you do outside work? Tell me about your family.” These are more revealing as to what motivates the individual.

And after you discuss the personal issues, what’s next?

Once I understand more about the person, we then talk about what the person’s group does and where he or she wants to take it. Next, I share my background and how I like to operate so we all can be successful together. My aim is to reach a common understanding about how best to communicate and work together.

What do you reveal about yourself?

I once worked with a very strong senior leader who felt that the most important thing to do during the first 100 days was to break down the barriers that prevent people from understanding and listening to each other. He created a “Who I Am” document. I’ve adopted this document, describing who I am as a person, how I like to interact, and how I make decisions. I have found that this approach provides team members with an understanding of how they should be driving the interaction with the new leader.

What’s your scorecard for the first 100 days?

In my previous organization, the company was losing money and was in violation of its debt covenants. It needed a quick turnaround. The situation here at FXI is very different. We have a strong organization and are making money. We’re closing in on $1 billion in revenue; we have 2,000 employees and 17 plants. I have the time to listen to all stakeholders, develop key priorities, and drive alignment on improvement. In the first 50 days, I had more than 300 discussions with my senior team and developed a good understanding of who we are and where we need to go.

And what are your top priorities?

We are siloed and functionally driven. We need to become an interdependent team. We need to start making fact-based decisions and drive resolution when conflicts emerge. I brought in GDS to help us begin the journey to a high-performing, horizontal team.

What about product/market priorities?

We have a strong position within each of our business units. What we need to do is to improve innovation. Historically, our hit rate—the capability of R&D to work on a project that is successful in the market— has been 10 percent. We have over 25 R & D professionals who are developing products almost every day. We have the ability to drive a five-fold increase in effectiveness regarding innovation. But we need to figure out how to better leverage our scientists’ capability to solve consumer issues that will enable us to provide value-added solutions and raise revenue.

What are you doing to role-model being a high-performance leader?

In the past, FXI was a siloed organization. I’m role-modeling what it means to function as an interdependent, high-performing team that makes decisions after carefully assessing the facts and presenting a solid business case as a recommendation.

What’s an example of how you do this?

When we’re in a senior-team meeting and we’re discussing a priority issue, I make sure that each person provides input and that we have a strong, interactive, fact-based, numbers-oriented discussion. And we don’t leave the room without answering the question:  “Do you support the decision?” I know everyone may not be in 100% agreement, but we must move forward as an aligned team.

What’s your plan to build a high-performance culture?

We’ve already begun the process. We’ve delayered the organization. We eliminated the COO role, so key functions now report to me. I brought in an experienced HR consultant to help with talent planning and succession and to serve as a sounding board for my team and me. We are in the process of hiring an additional HR leader who is very strong at developing high-performance teams. 

From past experience, I know that the GDS process helps a new CEO develop the high-performance capability of his or her team. I’ve enlisted Howard Guttman and his colleague, Mark Landsberg, to take us through the process to build a high-performance team and help us on-board executives. By continually monitoring the team’s progress and encouraging open discussion and feedback, the process creates a learning environment that enables the entire team to feel as though it is part of the process for hiring and on-boarding new executives. It reduces risk and increases success for everyone.

What did you learn about leading a high-performing team at your previous organization that you will apply at FXI?

In mid-cap organizations, you have limited resources that must be effective. You must select a few key priorities, stay focused on them, make sure everyone is aligned, ensure that you have enough resources for success, keep to fact-based decision making, and   measure what you manage. What’s key is to make sure that the senior team operates in a parallel and not a serial process. It is critical to achieve early wins.

How do you want to be measured over the next six months to two years?

I want to be measured on how well I was able to transform the senior leaders into a high-performing team that drives improved performance: one that works interdependently, seeks one another’s advice, produces a much better hit rate on innovation, and is driving increased revenue and market share. Five years from now, I’d like to see FXI be a $2 billion company that operates as a high-performing organization.

Designed & developed by Greenfield/Belser Ltd.