Investors, Does your CEO have what it takes?
The demands are more daunting than ever, and the pressure to perform is relentless. But the great CEOs embrace the impossible.
By Geoffrey Colvin, FORTUNE editor at large

NEW YORK (FORTUNE Magazine) - I'm delighted to inform you that the board has unanimously chosen you to be Microsoft's new chairman and CEO.

Now that Messrs. Gates and Ballmer have unexpectedly retired to Fiji, the board is counting on you to lead the company forward -- from a business based on virtually controlling the world's personal computers and selling software at astronomical profit margins into a completely different business where the rulers of the Net increasingly control our company's world and a lot of competing software is free.

FORTUNE INVESTOR'S GUIDE

Congratulations! You start Monday.

Now: Do you have the remotest idea of what you're going to do? Welcome to the world of tough jobs. Not ordinarily tough, but monumentally, head-swimmingly tough.

FORTUNE has assembled 10 killer jobs and their current holders (including Mr. Ballmer, who has not, in fact, retired to Fiji). These tough jobs don't involve crises -- each of the 10 companies is still highly profitable. Yet all face profound issues that signal some of the most important trends in the economic world -- and because the stocks of the companies are all widely held, their course has huge implications for the financial markets.

Are today's toughest jobs really any more demanding than yesterday's? After all, people like to believe they live in the most challenging times ever, but isn't that just egotism? In fact, strong evidence says the hardest jobs now really may be in a class by themselves.

That's because the world economy is going through a genuine epochal transformation on the scale of the industrial revolution 200 years ago. As we move toward an information-based economy in which computing power, data storage, and telecommunications are virtually free, the challenges are fundamentally different and deeply unfamiliar. The toughest jobs are the ones you don't know how to do, and in this new economy those are mostly the jobs we face.

Exhibit A: The moving model

The class of problem that's arguably hardest to fix -- and most emblematic of the changing economy -- is the outmoded business model. Among the companies on our list, Microsoft, Sony, Verizon, Wal-Mart, and perhaps others face that challenge.

Time was when a company could turn the crank on a good business model for decades; think of Kodak, Sears, Xerox, or any other icon of 20th-century commerce. No more. Former Xerox CEO Paul Allaire spoke for millions of managers in 2000 when he famously told a conference call of Wall Street analysts: "We have an unsustainable business model."

That's a sentence every CEO should put on a laminated card and carry in his pocket. In an information-based economy, untethered to physical assets, business models can and will change continually. Yet for most companies, changing them is almost unbearably difficult -- think again of Kodak, Sears, and Xerox.

Arguably the champ at adaptation is Intel. Its recent shift away from PC chips is at least its fifth major change in business model. Those kinds of changes terrify most executives, but if Intel hadn't made them, CEO Paul Otellini would today be in one of our 10 toughest jobs -- or more likely, the company would be dead.

Exhibit B: The power players

The economic revolution is making the hardest jobs harder in another way, by changing the relationships between corporate chiefs and the other players in the game of business -- almost always to the chiefs' disadvantage.

Most important, customers have more power. Partly that's because they have more information; in the Internet Age they know what everything costs and how much you're charging in every market.

Then add global overcapacity in almost every industry, which increasingly forces you to compete on price. Customers rule; suppliers grovel. There's more: Investors are more powerful than ever, since they're more likely to be big institutions rather than individuals. Boards of directors are more powerful, prodded into their new role by scandals. Highly skilled employees are more powerful, with talent becoming the new critical production factor just as the largest-ever army of workers, the boomers, begins leaving the workforce.

Add it all up, and CEOs are facing some of the hardest problems ever from a position of less relative power than they've held in generations. Could it get any tougher? Actually, it could. Because sometimes a CEO (like Coke's Neville Isdell) lands in one of these jobs after a predecessor or two or three has failed at it, letting problems get worse before moving on. That kind of situation has always been with us and always will be, which is no consolation to those who are in it.

The Upshot: Comebacks and collapses

Some of these jobs will prove too tough, and the companies involved will become sad stories of decline. The great opportunity for investors is distinguishing those from the wonderful comebacks waiting to happen.

A list of toughest jobs in the 1990s would have included those of Lou Gerstner and Larry Bossidy, newly arrived at IBM and AlliedSignal (now Honeywell), and that of Steve Jobs, newly returned to Apple Computer. You could have argued plausibly that all three situations were hopeless, but of course those jobs got done masterfully, producing spectacular rewards for investors.

You'll read our investing calls on all 10 companies we discuss. The best thing about CEOs on the spot is that they're responding to the biggest problems of a revolutionized economy, showing the way for the next generation of business leaders. Cheer them on and learn from them. We can even be inspired by them to adopt a new attitude. Instead of dreading daunting challenges, let's embrace them.

The U.S. Navy SEALs have a favorite saying: "The only easy day was yesterday." In today's economy, that belongs on the laminated card too.

Also: Eddie Lampert: The greatest investor of his generation. Top of page

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Most stock quote data provided by BATS. Market indices are shown in real time, except for the DJIA, which is delayed by two minutes. All times are ET. Disclaimer.

Morningstar: © 2014 Morningstar, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Factset: FactSet Research Systems Inc. 2014. All rights reserved.

Chicago Mercantile Association: Certain market data is the property of Chicago Mercantile Exchange Inc. and its licensors. All rights reserved.

Dow Jones: The Dow Jones branded indices are proprietary to and are calculated, distributed and marketed by DJI Opco, a subsidiary of S&P Dow Jones Indices LLC and have been licensed for use to S&P Opco, LLC and CNN. Standard & Poor's and S&P are registered trademarks of Standard & Poor’s Financial Services LLC and Dow Jones is a registered trademark of Dow Jones Trademark Holdings LLC. All content of the Dow Jones branded indices © S&P Dow Jones Indices LLC 2014 and/or its affiliates.