FORTUNE 500 2007  
FORTUNE 500    

The strange existence of Ram Charan

David Whitford, Fortune writer

Charan's weird and wonderful life is an unintended byproduct of dedication, he insists. Dedication to learning and teaching and service, to the whole set of Hindu virtues embodied by one of Charan's favorite phrases, "Purpose before self." "People used to ask me, What is your ambition?" says Charan, who turned 67 this past Christmas. "I say I have none. My dedication is going to take me where I'm going to be."

"Tell me his three God's gifts"

Charan follows his driver out the door of the hotel in Dubai on Sunday morning. "We'll see how it goes," he says, then sneezes. "The nose is not running." With that he's off to an all-day meeting at Emaar Properties, the Persian Gulf behemoth that's developing both the skyscraper and the mall. The limo zooms along on newly built freeways, past a string of galloping mounted camels at Dubai's Nad Al Sheba racetrack, through a dusty desert landscape cluttered with cranes, cement mixers, and rebar. ("Look at all that skyline," Charan murmurs.)

Once inside the gated Emaar compound, he is led upstairs to a conference room overlooking a vivid green golf course. Tom Bartridge, Emaar's American HR director (who thinks "Ram" rhymes with "bam"), is here waiting, and after a few moments V.K. Gomber, strategic advisor to the chairman, walks in. Charan shakes hands all around ("V.K., good morning, sir, how are you?"), says yes, thank you, he'll have tea, then heads to the whiteboard.

Ten-year-old Emaar is growing like crazy in the Persian Gulf, in South Asia, and with its recent acquisition of California builder John Laing Homes, in the U.S. Its top challenge now, in Gomber's view, is execution. Can Emaar capitalize on the marvelous opportunities before it? That's largely a people question, Gomber believes, and therefore people will be the focus of Charan's work with Emaar's management team in the months to come. (Charan is flying back to New York tonight but will return to Dubai for a total of 22 days in 2007.)

"Can we bring up the maximum number of people within the organization," says Gomber, "or can we go through the networking that [Charan] has and go outside the organization and identify people? If we can get such people, I think the money is well spent."

For the next five hours Charan walks his charges through a detailed analysis and discussion of Emaar's draft succession-planning template. "A leader who does not produce leaders is not a great leader," he says. "If you agree, I'd like to put that in." (Gomber nods.) Charan is trying to help Emaar construct a document that will help its managers discern in others what he calls "natural talents," or "God's gifts." "Each of us has to be the best calibrator of natural talent of the people who work with us," he says. "What are the three to five most crucial natural-talent items that each person has? It has to be specific" - he taps the whiteboard for emphasis - "and very clear" - tap - "and repeatable" -tap!

"By the way," says Charan, "the last time I talked about Steve Jobs, remember? I've now verified from two directors of Apple, and they say it's right on the button." Gomber and Bartridge perk up their ears. "I asked, Well, tell me his three God's gifts. And they think about it, and they say first thing, this human being has a talent to figure out what the consumer really wants. This is a very valuable thing! No. 2, he has the will and the talent to find - no matter where it is! - the right technology that will deliver what they want. Nobody said he invented one! And third, he has the talent to create demand at the right time. I say, Where do you find those human beings? But he is one."

Throughout the afternoon Charan discreetly shares from his store of anecdotes. For example, the time he was sitting in Andy Grove's cubicle sometime in the late '70s when Grove got a call from a Tektronix (Charts) engineer who wanted to work at Intel (Charts, Fortune 500) and was willing to take a 10% pay cut. "And they were a $200 million company at the time," says Charan, "very small. Tektronix was $5 billion. That's brand!" GE has a similarly powerful brand, says Charan. So does P&G (Charts, Fortune 500). So can Emaar, is the idea.

I don't care if I flunk

Later that evening I meet Charan for dinner back at the hotel. Western music plays softly, disconcertingly, in the background. (Eric Clapton, John Lee Hooker, and a cover by someone I can't place of Lowell George's highway traveler's classic, "Willin'" - "I been from Tucson to Tucumcari, Tehachapi to Tonopah.") Charan has a plane to catch at 2 A.M. He has three appointments in New York starting at 9:30 Monday morning. Monday night he flies to Madrid, Tuesday night to Frankfurt, Wednesday morning to Miami. After that, he doesn't know.

Our waitress is a guest worker from India, one of many now in Dubai. "May I call you beti?" Charan asks politely. She nods, blushing at the portly gentleman seated before her, with his backswept gray-streaked hair, smooth round face, and sparkling eyes. "It's an Indian custom," Charan explains after she leaves. "I took her permission first. I may not in India. Even though she has never met me, and I address her as beti" - "daughter" in Hindi -"it's like I am telling her that you will be treated like my own daughter. All threats are out. You see the face changing right away."