09/24/2013 04:43 pm ET Updated Nov 24, 2013

Who's Your Career Sponsor?

Even for the brightest and most self-sufficient of us, navigating the jungle gym from young professional to the top job takes many helping hands.

While mentors and coaches are well-known career accelerators, researcher/author Sylvia Ann Hewlett has brought to light another effective -- and until recently less clear -- ingredient for getting to the top: Sponsorship.

Her research, presented, compellingly in her latest book, Forget a Mentor; Find a Sponsor (2013: Harvard Business Review Press), double-clicks on the mechanism by which active advocacy by senior "sponsors" helps a career arc reach its peak in a top job. Without having a term for it until now, I've definitely noticed Hewlett's findings in my executive coaching practice, so her work is not only enlightening, but also practical.

In short, a mentor shares their own advice/experience, while a sponsor, defined as someone senior to the protégé and willing to help them, will a) be quite candid with their protégé, telling them what others would rather not say, and b) at the same time, pound the table on behalf of their charge, expending their own political capital to help them advance. The protégé must be ambitious, consistently excellent, a relationship-builder, and willing to solicit candid feedback, and learn from it. They must also know who their sponsors are, and are not.

This mechanism is particularly relevant for women and people of color. For example, despite the fact that women now outnumber men in the U.S. workforce, the top jobs are still male by a wide margin. Women comprise 34 percent of the layer right below CEO, but 4.2 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs are women. People of color comprise 4.2 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs, according to the Center for American Progress. As the president is wont to say, "There's more to do."

Regardless of gender or race, sponsorship is highly correlated to career growth.

Recently, I facilitated a workshop at a global health care company and asked attendees to think through every significant, positive step forward in their careers. Was there someone advocating on their behalf -- giving them very candid feedback and helping propel them forward? Yes, said 100 percent of them. Did they know who that was? Yes, said 100 percent of them. It's true. And it's incumbent on all of us to "pay it forward" and do the same for others, by taking on our own protégés as our careers advance and peak.

Hewlett's work inspires. Let's commit to help each other in our careers, particularly now when times are so challenging. Be bold, be very candid and kind, and remember how we were helped when considering a request for sponsorship. Doing so makes the career jungle gym, in Sheryl Sandberg's Lean In parlance, a better place to play for everyone.

We are at our best as leaders and professionals when we help each other achieve.