Best bosses: Three CEOs who powered through the financial crisis

In case you thought every day was Bosses Day, you've got another thing coming. Friday is "officially" National Boss Day and to celebrate it, here are three CEOs who actually earned their pay and position by skillfully guiding their companies through the financial crisis.

To measure the effectiveness of that guidance, I looked for profitable companies with stock prices that are above their levels from about two years ago on Oct. 12, 2007, when the Dow peaked at 14,093 -- 40 percent higher than it is today. Without further ado, the winners are: Apple Inc. (APPL) CEO Steve Jobs; Strayer Education (STRA) CEO Robert Silberman; and International Business Machines (IBM) boss Sam Palmisano.

Each of these CEOs has powered through the recession in a different way. In Jobs' case, the method has been innovation: The iPhone and iTunes are just a few of the revolutionary products that have helped push Apple's stock up 14 percent in the last two years, from $167.25 to $190.56. That people have continued buying Apple products through the financial crisis in huge numbers is a testament to Jobs' unique creative ability.

But to secure his place at the top of the boss hall of fame, a CEO like Jobs needs to find a successor who can keep that string of hit products coming after he leaves the scene.

Strayer -- which provides post-secondary school education in business, accounting, IT and other fields to 44,000 students on the East Coast -- has enjoyed a 30 percent rise in its stock price since Oct. 12, 2007, from $174.56 to $227.55. Silberman has positioned Strayer well to take advantage of the rapid growth in demand for career education during a period when millions are looking for jobs -- boosting its revenues 29 percent in the second quarter.

While Strayer's earnings are at risk due to bad debt -- students who can't repay their student loans -- its performance remains extraordinary.

Finally, I'd give a tip of the hat to IBM's Palmisano for continuing to boost the company's bottom line even as revenues have been tepid at best. In the last two years, IBM stock has risen 9 percent from $117.81 to $127.98 -- not a fantastic performance but a solid one given IBM's size and exposure to global economic trends. After all, IBM just reported a 14 percent rise in earnings -- even though its revenue fell 7 percent.

This is a testament to Palmisano's skills at cost cutting and pushing sales as hard as possible under the circumstances.

The lesson? While much attention has been focused on bad business leaders, some bosses really do earn their pay and position. During the current financial crisis, CEOs who adapt well to the challenges -- whether by delivering recession-proof products or managing costs effectively -- should be an inspiration to us all.

Peter Cohan is a management consultant, Babson professor and author of nine books, includingCapital Rising (due in June 2010). Follow him on Twitter. He has no financial interest in the securities mentioned.

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