Often, men help female executives get to the top

If there is a woman behind every successful man, it may be as true that there is a man behind most every successful woman.

Sorry, husbands. He's probably not you, but rather a male executive who champions women to the top.

When USA TODAY asked female CEOs, chairs and company founders to identify the one mentor who had the most influence on their careers, 33 of the 34 who responded identified a man.

These female executives included Fortune 500 CEOs Andrea Jung of Avon Products and Laura Sen of BJ's Wholesale Club. Jung says men once dominated Avon's leadership, but the playing field was leveled by James Preston, Avon's CEO the previous decade. Jung remembers when she first interviewed for a job with Avon, Preston had a plaque behind his desk called "The Evolution of Leadership." It had four footprints: an ape, a barefoot man, a wingtip shoe and, finally, a high-heeled shoe.

Preston says he thought it was odd that the company was led by men even though its customers and sales force were women. So he set out to change that when he rose to senior management. It was never out of social responsibility, but out of self-interest, Preston says. And he credits Jung and other women for digging the company out of its 1980s slump.

"I'm a first-generation American, and everyone has a right to be given an opportunity to do their best," Preston says.

One reason the path to success for some women almost always leads through men may be the sheer matter of numbers: There are only 29 Fortune 1,000 companies with a female CEO and not enough other women in very high-ranking positions to do the mentoring.

So what do these mentors have in common besides standing on the other side of the gender divide? One thread appears to be that they often have a daughter. Others have had a strong female influence in their lives. Female CEOs say their male mentors believed in them enough to push them beyond their comfort zones. The best mentors won't waste their time on women unless they see a strong desire for success, says Laura Wellington, CEO of The Giddy Gander Co.

The best male mentor won't be the guy who is nicest to you in the office, but the one who is wise enough to know that there is no one more loyal than the women he champions, says Sen, who names as her key mentor BJ's Chairman Herb Zarkin.

"Early on, I recognized that women were not interested in the games that men play, the politics or the sports analogies that were endemic in the male workplace," says Zarkin. "Women were interested in getting the job done."

"Men have the power to make women great," says Laura Herring, chairwoman of human resources consultants Impact Group. Juliet Huck, founder of a communications consulting firm, says her key mentor, Dan Winter, had "more confidence in my talent than I did."

Some women don't agree

Of course, many women may flinch at statements that give any one person credit for their success — whether it is a man or not. And sometimes older men will mentor younger women for the wrong reasons. "Shocking, I know," deadpans Andréa White-Kjoss, CEO at Mobis Transportation/Bikestation, a small company with 20 employees that designs, builds and manages facilities that encourage cycling. Even so, "I have found female champions to be rare," says White-Kjoss, who says men have been her key mentors, and she can think of only one woman over 15 years whom she would include on any list of mentors.

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