What makes a CEO an MVP?

May 31, 2011, 9:00 AM UTC

To make Fortune’s first Executive Dream Team, a CEO needs global chops, street smarts, and more.

Here’s the world Jim Skinner faced when he became McDonald’s CEO seven years ago: He had just helped turn the struggling company around, but now he was boss because the two previous CEOs had died suddenly. He got profits soaring, only to encounter a historic recession in which Americans said the first expense they were cutting was eating out. With a new strategy, Skinner kept profits up and the stock steady — and today it’s hitting all-time highs.

It’s an inspiring story unless you’re trying to pick a CEO or any other important manager in today’s violently, unpredictably shifting business environment. Did McDonald’s (MCD) actually foresee what was coming when it wisely promoted Skinner, or was it just lucky? More generally, how can anyone hope to spot — or be — the best executive for today and tomorrow?

That question is so important that we’ll turn to it repeatedly throughout the summer, identifying the winning traits needed by each member of the C-suite. Then, in our Sept. 5 issue, we’ll name our Executive Dream Team — the men and women at each position in an all-star lineup of knockout executives for a profoundly changing business world.

Let’s start at the top. Canvass top headhunters, directors, and investors, and you get a clear picture of the tasks that star CEOs of tomorrow will need to do extraordinarily well.

Understand global business in their bones.

Everybody talks a good global game. Only a few (A-B InBev’s (BUD) Carlos Brito, for one) are true citizens of the world.

Change strategies and business models more than before.

In the good old days a strong business model lasted for decades. No more. CEOs in almost every industry will have to innovate at their business’s deepest level, as Sam Palmisano has done in moving IBM (IBM) adeptly into software.

Skillfully manage relationships with governments.

Governments worldwide are changing their involvement in business, mostly increasing it, and it all needs to be managed. Just look how J.P. Morgan Chase’s (JPM) Jamie Dimon treats government relations as a line of business.

Identify and manage risks before they become disasters.

In a notoriously volatile and risky industry, Exxon Mobil’s (XOM) Rex Tillerson has kept his company on a steady and extremely profitable course. That’s one reason he gets almost zero publicity, which is just as much as he wants.

Could any mere human possess all those traits? Not many could, and the requirements will be just as stringent for the other positions on the Dream Team. We don’t know who the members will be, but we know for sure that making this team won’t be easy.