Where would Alexander Hamilton have been without the support of George Washington? An upstart outsider with a gift for ruffling feathers -- Jefferson hated him and John Adams called him "the bastard son of a Scottish peddler" -- Hamilton lacked the crucial connections to advance his ambitions. Washington was willing to overlook his temperament and focus instead on his many talents, promoting Hamilton first to his inner circle of military aides and, once he became President, to Treasury Secretary. Washington's popularity protected Hamilton from critics who might otherwise have sabotaged policies like the one that created the Bank of the United States, which helped put the new nation on firm financial footing. "He was an aegis very essential to me," Hamilton wrote.

Behind every successful person, there's a sponsor who helped them along their way. During National Mentoring Month, we celebrate the mentors who provided us with advice and a sounding board. However, it's important that we also honor the sponsors who advocate for and support us.

What's the difference between a mentor and a sponsor? As described in Forget A Mentor, Find A Sponsor, mentors listen to their mentee's issues and offer advice. As sympathetic confidants, they can't be beat. Sponsors, however, have the power to change their protégé's career. They make crucial connections, advocate for promotions, and propel and protect their protégé through the perilous straits of upper management. And the reason they are willing to extend themselves is because furthering their protégé's career helps further their career, organization or vision.

This powerful pairing occurs in every industry: Steve Jobs shared his Silicon Valley smarts and connections with Mark Zuckerberg at Facebook; investment guru Warren Buffett has long counseled Bill Gates on business and philanthropy. Conversely, Richard Branson turned to Sir Freddie Laker, pioneer of cheap transatlantic air travel, for help in getting Virgin Air off the ground; and Judith Jamison often thanks renowned black dancer Carmen de Lavallade for introducing her to the New York dance world, where she became Alvin Ailey's muse and -- in a classic sponsor/protégée happy ending -- succeeded him as director of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.

In one of the most famous sponsor-protégé examples of recent times, when Larry Summers, then a powerhouse economics professor at Harvard, was tapped to run the World Bank, he invited a former student to join him as a research assistant. When he became the Secretary of the Treasury, she was promoted to his chief of staff. Now COO at Facebook and Lean In legend, Sheryl Sandberg is considered one of the most powerful women in business today and never hesitates to cite Summers' support.

The Center for Talent Innovation (CTI) which has conducted extensive research on the subject, has quantified the impact of sponsorship on a career: A significant majority of those with sponsors -- 70 percent of men and 68 percent of women -- say they are satisfied with their rate of advancement, compared with 57 percent of both genders who do not have sponsors. That translates into a "sponsor effect" of 23 percent for men and 19 percent for women.

The sponsor effect transformed a career path of an executive at a multinational company. "A good sponsor instills confidence in you, and that gives you the courage and confidence to take the next step." She languished at the director level for 11 years, until one day her sponsor said, "Why not the next level? Why not a V.P.?" she recalls, "I'd thought of it before and thought it was inaccessible. But his words made me think, 'Why not? In less than a year, she was appointed vice president.

The sponsor effect is even more pronounced among people of color: 53 percent of African-Americans with a sponsor are satisfied with their rate of advancement, compared with 35 percent of those without; and 55 percent of Asians with a sponsor are content with their rate of advancement, compared with just 30 percent of those without such backing. Latinos with sponsors are 42 percent more likely than those without sponsors to be satisfied with their career progression.

As a young manager at American Express, Kenneth Chenault didn't believe a person of color could succeed there. "I thought, 'I'm going to stay five years, and move on.'" Then his boss, Lou Gerstner, point-blank told him, "You can go far in this company" and identified the areas Chenault needed to work on. Gerstner's robust sponsorship simultaneously raised Chenault's aspirations and gave him credibility -- so much so that Chenault became American Express' chairman and chief executive officer.

Sponsorship is a game-changer for all talent, but especially for diverse talent. Sponsors can dramatically overcome many of the tripwires to achievement for people of color, women, LGBT individuals and anyone who doesn't fit the mold. They boost confidence and make the crucial connections for advancement while dampening the distrust and discomfort that ultimately leads to a diverse brain drain. They enable their protégés to broaden their career ambitions and achieve dreams they never knew -- or dared -- to have.

In short, the sponsor/protégé pairing isn't just what's been called "the relationship you need to get right." It's a relationship you need to get.

Published on: Jan 27, 2017
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.