By Patricia Sellers
July 16, 2008

I’ve shared with you the first two criteria for making the grade on the Fortune Most Powerful Women list. Here’s the third: the arc of the woman executive’s career. Women who race to the top when they’re barely 40 years old — Sallie Krawcheck of Citigroup

, Charlene Begley of General Electric

, Sheryl Sandberg of Facebook — gain an edge in our rankings. Sandberg, who used to be the most powerful woman at Google

, hasn’t even reached 40, so imagine her career arc ahead.

But tremendous career arcs can also come in maturity. Xerox’s

Anne Mulcahy, 55, spent her career at the company, never wanting to be CEO. Amidst a financial crisis in 2001, she reluctantly accepted the top job and then rescued Xerox from the brink of bankruptcy. Today Mulcahy, No. 2 on the MPWomen list, is on two prominent boards: Citigroup and Target

. Xerox President Ursula Burns is her heir apparent.

P.S. When Burns takes over from Mulcahy, it will likely be the first woman-to-woman CEO transition ever in the Fortune 500. Last fall, my Fortune colleague Betsy Morris wrote a terrific story about the Mulcahy-Burns partnership. Click here to see video excerpts of a Most Powerful Women panel on leadership that we did in New York in May. The panel includes Burns; Andrea Jung, CEO of Avon; and Ann Moore, CEO of Time Inc.

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