Some firms' fertile soil grows crop of future CEOs

Get that MBA degree and groom that Type A personality. But here's some additional advice for the ambitious: Land a job at Baxter International, Merrill Lynch or another leadership factory.

Then, work up and out.

The résumés of the successful have an arresting pattern. One in every five CEOs running the 1,187 publicly traded corporations with a market value of at least $2 billion have at one time held a job at one of just 20 companies. One in every 10 CEOs worked at one of eight companies. One in 27 have earned a paycheck at one of these two leadership factories: General Electric ge, with 26 CEO alumni; and IBM ibm, with 18.

GE, known for an intensive performance review process and the dismissal of workers who perform in the bottom 10%, is so well known for its executive alumni that some experts, including Good to Great author Jim Collins, say that the conglomerate's key product may be leadership. But an exclusive dive deep into résumés for USA TODAY by Capital IQ, a division of Standard & Poor's, found that while GE and IBM have produced the most CEOs, there are a few companies that offer better odds of getting to the top.

GE has a large workforce of 300,000, which means that its employees have had a 1-in-11,540 shot of becoming CEO of a $2 billion company. Odds at IBM, with 366,500 employees, have been 1-in-20,360. But McKinsey, with a workforce of 11,000 and 16 sitting CEO alumni, has offered a 1-in-690 shot, well ahead of second-place Deloitte & Touche, at 1-in-2,150.

McKinsey, Deloitte, PricewaterhouseCoopers, Ernst & Young and the now-defunct Arthur Andersen all rank in the Top 20 as CEO factories. But they're management consultants, which makes them fundamentally different animals from GE and IBM. They can recruit the top MBA grads, who hire on to help client companies solve knotty problems. Those who succeed earn reputations and a fast track to the top.

Even at some more traditional companies, the odds are better than at GE and IBM. Baxter International bax alumni have had a 1-in-4,365 chance at making CEO. Merrill Lynch mer, Motorola mot, Intel intc and Procter & Gamble pg also have produced more CEOs per employee than GE. IBM trails those companies, plus Honeywell hon, Novartis nvs, PepsiCo pep, Disney dis, ExxonMobil xom and Johnson & Johnson jnj.

"With numbers, you can make any point you want," says Susan Peters, GE's vice president of executive development and chief learning officer, who suggests GE's real odds might be higher, because just half of its employees are white-collar professionals.

PepsiCo's odds have been 1-in-12,925, putting it in 13th place, but alumni include seven Fortune 500 CEOs: Ronald Rittenmeyer at Electronic Data Systems eds; Brenda Barnes at Sara Lee sle; Steve Odland at Office Depot odp; Gary Rodkin at ConAgra Foods cag; David Novak at Yum Brands yum; Leo Kiely at Molson Coors Brewing tap; and Donald Knauss at Clorox clx. Microsoft's msft Steve Ballmer and eBay's ebay Meg Whitman both worked at P&G.

"Every year, we have regretted losses. Every year, we lose people we want to keep," says P&G CEO A.G. Lafley, who adds that those at the company routinely get calls offering more money and a loftier title.

Most stay. But Lafley takes some pride in P&G's alumni who have left, because it proves "We are a leadership engine and a talent machine."

The analysis shows that a "shocking" number of CEOs funnel through 20 companies, says Randall Winn, co-founder and managing director of Capital IQ.

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