FORTUNE 500 2007  
FORTUNE 500    

The strange existence of Ram Charan

David Whitford, Fortune writer

At Charan's suggestion they began hosting regular Tuesday meetings at headquarters in Greensboro, N.C. They'd fly in a handful of store managers from all over the country, put them in a room with the leaders from corporate, and run down a three-item agenda following a script devised by Charan: What unique thing happened in your store last week? What issues did you face that kept you from serving your customers better? How can we fix those issues right now? Says Smith: "He made sure as we grew that we didn't lose sight of what was really important."

When Bill Conaty moved to GE headquarters as senior VP for corporate human resources in 1993, he picked Charan to lead his new-leader assimilation program. Charan brought two dozen of Conaty's new reports to GE's guesthouse for six hours, asking them, What do you know about Bill? What do you want him to know about you? What advice do you have for him? Charan summarized the feedback for Conaty, then offered some of his own, then followed up repeatedly. "Charan really pushed me on the whole business-partnership piece," Conaty recalls, meaning no more HR initiatives for HR's sake, "and the function as a result is much more credible and visible in GE today than it was."

Ivan Seidenberg says he goes through cycles of change at Verizon, and so engages Charan in different ways. "For a while we were trying to figure out how to reengineer work," he says. "Another time we were looking to design new management programs to have people focus on a different way of thinking about running the business: How do you forge a growth culture, as opposed to one that's been focused on productivity for many years? New-product introduction - I talked to him about that. He always whips out this nice little pen he uses, real thin ink, and he starts drawing diagrams. He constantly is helping to provide depth to issues, not only answers. All of it is useful."

John Reed started working with Charan in 1990, before Citi's merger with Travelers. The stock was languishing, the company was struggling. "I knew what I wanted to do," says Reed, "but I wasn't 100% sure how to get it done. That's a big distinction if you're in business. A lot of consultants come in to tell you what you should be doing. This was not that. This was a question of how best to get it done."

Reed says, "Ram is a catalyst in the real sense of that word. He facilitates things happening but doesn't take part in them himself. And he is an immense source of energy. When you're trying to get large organizations to do things, energy is extremely important. He forces you to tell him what it is you want to do, and he forces you to really be clear in your own mind what those things are and what steps have to be taken. Often it's getting the wrong guy out of a job. But the point is, he starts out by basically forcing you to think with him and be very clear. Then, okay, you notice that he isn't doing anything, he's just forcing you to do it. Then once you've agreed on everything you want to do, he calls you up every ten minutes and asks why haven't you done it yet."

"I am allowed to do what I love to do!"

Feb. 19, President's Day. Not much of a holiday for most Americans; certainly it means nothing to Charan. He spent the day with a client in Hartford, then flew to Cleveland on a connecting flight through Dulles. The planes were late. Charan never complained. When the airline club closed and the tired employees went home, Charan relocated to the gate and dozed in a chair until his flight was called. Now he is standing at the check-in desk at a hotel on a highway somewhere far outside town, waiting patiently for his key. The clock behind the desk reads 1:48 A.M. He asks for a 5:00 A.M. wake-up call.

"I'm a lucky man!" Charan likes to say. "I am allowed to do what I love to do!" While I still don't really understand him, I am beginning to believe him. Surely there are many ways to live fully and be happy on this earth; probably, he has found his own. Of course he knows he can't keep this up forever. One day he'll start slowing down, and then he'll begin to dispose of his money. He has long financed the aspirations of his extended family in India, by paying for their schooling and helping some of them get settled overseas. But that's it, he says. No more money for the family. ("My people are not rich, but they have enough to go on their own.") "It's going to be in India" is all he'll say about his coming serious philanthropy. "It goes a long way, a little amount there. To enable people to accomplish things."

But Charan's not there yet; he's not even thinking about slowing down. Even though - and this is breaking news - he is no longer homeless. "I now have an apartment in Texas," he tells me matter-of-factly. To say I am dumbfounded is an understatement. Why now? "I just thought I'd get one," he says. "I was in Istanbul, they're all telling me I got to cut this out. They think it's a big deal for me to have never bought a place. I said hell with it. I got tired of people talking about it." So I ask him when he is moving in. "Maybe never," he says, staring hard. Staring back, I catch a glimmer of something, a ripple that crosses his face. It may have been a smile. Top of page

Next: See the 2007 FORTUNE 500

FORTUNE 1000 Companies in Your State