Powerful women: It takes a mother

July 8, 2008, 9:33 PM UTC

I had dinner the other night with Alyse Myers, a former senior executive at the New York Times Co. who just wrote a heartbreaking memoir called Who Do You Think You Are? It’s about a girl growing up in working-class Queens with combative parents — and then, after her father dies in his 30s, contending with her very bitter mother. The memoir is at times harrowing. By the end, it’s uplifting and charming. If you read Jeanette Walls’ The Glass Castle — one of my favorite memoirs and still a bestseller three years after its release — you’ll like Myers’ book.

I mention this for another reason besides recommending a good summer read. This memoir reminded me how crucial mothers have been in the career paths of Fortune’s Most Powerful Women. One of the most memorable MPWomen stories I’ve done in a decade of following women leaders is a short piece called “Behind Every Successful Woman There is…A Woman.” It ran in 1999, but it holds up — and suggests that if CEOs such as Andrea Jung of Avon , Meg Whitman formerly of eBay , and Carly Fiorina formerly of Hewlett-Packard , had not had amazing mothers, the ranks of women leaders — and the corporate landscape too — would be quite different.

P.S. When we’ve asked male CEOs who influenced them most, they’ve typically told us it’s their fathers. An exception is A.G. Lafley of Procter & Gamble (PG). His mother, he said, gave him the best advice he ever got: “My mom told me to have the courage of my convictions. She encouraged me to be independent and to be myself.”