Catch a Rising Star
Top talent has never been more valuable, nor the competition for it more fierce. On these pages, we profile 12 leaders who are one step from superstardom. They're not CEOs yet, but they're on deck--at the biggest companies on the planet. Learn from them.

(FORTUNE Magazine) - An unprecedented war for top talent is raging in the world economy. Meet the people who love it rather than fear it. The enviable men and women on the following pages occupy the absolute best place to be in that war: not on one side or the other, but right in the middle--they're the treasure being fought over.

We've identified a dozen standout executives you may not know now but probably will. Poised on the verge of superstardom, with top headhunters and board directors watching their every move, they aren't CEOs yet but most likely will be--some of them fairly soon. When you see how Ellen Kullman is igniting new growth at 200-year-old DuPont, or how Greg Brown is helping turn around Motorola, or how Mary Minnick is fixing the world's most storied brand, Coca-Cola, you realize you've been overlooking some awesomely talented people. Or consider David Calhoun, who would already be a famous CEO if the $40 billion of businesses he oversees didn't happen to be part of the even huger General Electric. Then look at what's driving these men and women to the top, their creativity, irreverence, boundless energy, and relentless determination--and apply those lessons to your own career.

It'll pay to do so, because today--after 500 years or so--the scarcest, most valuable resource in business is no longer financial capital. It's talent. If you doubt that, just watch how hard companies are battling for the best people. Google hires a top Microsoft executive--not an unusual event in the tech world--and Microsoft files a mammoth lawsuit. Nortel Networks hires a former Motorola executive as president, and Motorola declares courtroom war. Yahoo hires a group of computer engineers from a small software firm, which immediately sues. The stakes are getting higher. Why now? After all, the law of markets says that prices go down when supply goes up, and the supply of talent is emphatically rising. U.S. business schools turn out more MBAs every year--about 130,000 in 2005. More broadly, the global talent supply is exploding as China, India, Russia, and other places wholeheartedly join the world economy. With two billion or three billion new participants in global capitalism, how could top business talent possibly be scarcer and more valuable than ever? The answer is that even amid today's massive new supplies of talent, there isn't nearly enough of the very best stuff.

The evidence is everywhere. Consider, for example, the Microsoft-vs.-Google battle over one man, Kai-Fu Lee, whom Google hired to head a research lab in China. Let's do a little math. Microsoft has a total market value of $250 billion, which it has achieved using a mere $30 billion of financial capital. The difference is the amount of shareholder wealth the company has created: $220 billion. By contrast, Exxon Mobil has a higher market value but has needed so much more financial capital to support its old industrial-economy business model that it has created less shareholder wealth than Microsoft ($143 billion). And shareholder wealth is the real scorecard in capitalism. So what does Microsoft run on, if not financial capital? A clue: Ask executives what the company's core competency is, and they don't say a thing about software. They say hiring. That's why Bill Gates will call promising grad students the company wants. It's why Microsoft bought software genius Ray Ozzie's company just to get Ozzie. It's also why Gates once said that if you took the 20 smartest people out of Microsoft, it would be an insignificant company. Imagine. The world's software colossus reduced to insignificance by the loss of just 20 people. It's suddenly easier to see why the company went ballistic over the loss of just one.

Companies like Microsoft and Google are great examples of how today's info-based economy lets businesses create vast shareholder wealth using very little financial capital but loads of human capital. Software firms are hardly the only examples. Pharmaceutical firms like Lilly and Amgen, retailers like Kohl's and Walgreen, even manufacturers like Dell and Applied Materials are all devising business models that generate tons of wealth with very little capital. The phenomenon is global. The world is steadily becoming less capital-intensive, generating more wealth from less financial capital. Money isn't what today's firms need most. Even if it were, it's abundant and cheap--look at all those buyout firms trying to invest more money than they know what to do with. No, the best companies understand what they desperately need. It's talent. Talent of every type is in short supply, but the greatest shortage of all is skilled, effective managers. It's hard to believe that China could have a shortage of anything human, but it does. Even there, where you can hire factory workers by the million, companies can't find enough managers. "They're constantly getting stolen away," says Tom Johnson, former CEO of Chesapeake Corp., a packaging maker with a plant in China. "Labor is abundant, but management is scarce."

The most valued traits in managers, especially if they're approaching the highest levels, are not entirely what they were five or ten years ago. Obviously they still have to deliver knockout results. It's how they do it that's changing. Tom Neff, the SpencerStuart headhunter who is one of the world's top CEO recruiters, says, "The style for running a company is different from what it used to be. Companies don't want dictators, kings, or emperors." Instead of someone who gives orders, they want someone who asks probing questions that force the team to think and find the right answers--"a subtle technique," Neff says. Reinforcing that view is a new survey from Right Management Consultants, a major outplacement firm. It finds that the No. 1 skill companies seek in managers is "ability to motivate and engage others." Several of our dozen stars, notably GE's Calhoun, are excellent at that. Ranking a close second is ability to communicate, a trait Neff's clients also increasingly want. Standout leaders should additionally have on-the-ground operating experience outside the U.S.--note the career path of Wal-Mart's Eduardo Castro-Wright and Coke's Mary Minnick--and they'll need megawatts of energy to meet the demands of global travel and a 24/7 world.

How many people with those qualities are you likely to find if you just go out looking? The depressing answer--not many--is why many companies are getting serious about growing their own leaders. In a world where top managers can cost as much as top shortstops, a baseball analogy is apt: Companies want to find their future stars in their own farm systems rather than have to buy them from competing teams. Trouble is, most companies aren't very good at leadership development. "Look at all the companies that just lately have gone outside to find CEOs--Boeing, Hewlett-Packard twice, Sara Lee, 3M twice. The leadership pipeline is broken," says Noel Tichy, a University of Michigan business school professor and former chief of GE's Crotonville leadership development program. Those rare companies that are great at it thus end up functioning as virtual CEO factories: GE, Procter & Gamble, PepsiCo, and a few others (see table). To their credit, companies increasingly realize their pipeline is broken: In that survey from Right, 77% of companies say they don't have enough successors to their current senior managers. Yet they have a miserable time doing much about it. The reason isn't mysterious. At companies that are lousy at leadership development, they think it's HR's job. Successful companies know it's actually the job of all the managers. Those companies deeply believe that their real business is developing leaders.

Sponsorship from the top is key. "There's lots of pontificating, but this is hard stuff," says Tichy. "When a company says it's getting serious about management development, I say great--just let me see the CEO's calendar." Not many bosses will match the 70% of his time that Jack Welch says he put into development when he was running GE. But at Yum Brands, CEO David Novak runs five workshops a year, part of a long-term talent-building program he's launched. Not many chiefs will match that either. Even companies with the best intentions often create near-useless development programs that rarely change anyone's behavior. Steven Kerr, another GE alum who now oversees leadership development at Goldman Sachs, suggests a simple exercise: "Ask your company's best leaders to name the most powerful learning experiences they've had." They will hardly ever mention a class and will almost always name a real-life experience in business. The challenge is to find ways to replicate those experiences.

There's one more reason the talent shortage will probably get worse. The allure of being a corporate executive may be fading. Hedge fund managers can make far more money. And people who like running businesses rather than stock portfolios may decide they'd rather avoid the hassles of publicly traded companies. The HR chief of a major California firm said recently that some of its most promising managers have asked to be excluded from consideration for the CEO's job. With all the scrutiny, they figure it just isn't worth it; even some of the hottest managers, such as Comcast's Steve Burke, say they're perfectly happy in a No. 2 role. And these stars do have attractive alternatives. Highly successful executives--John Joyce of IBM, Vivek Paul of Wipro, Richard Bressler of Viacom--are leaving public companies to work for private equity firms. So whether you're an executive wanting to attract outstanding leaders or a young employee looking to run the show, study the next-generation corporate stars on the following pages. The war for talent is on--and no matter what happens, they win.

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