09/04/2013 04:44 pm ET Updated Nov 04, 2013

Why Your Career Is Stalled Even Though You are Smart and Work Hard

A banking executive once told Sylvia Ann Hewlett, the founding president of the Center for Talent Innovation, "A sponsor will smack you harder to shape up, but will protect you as you move to the next level."

Sponsors Matter More Than Mentors

"Sponsors, not mentors, put you on the path to power and influence by affecting three things: pay increases, high-profile assignments, and promotions," Hewlett points out in her groundbreaking new book, Find a Sponsor. In it, she cites research by Catalyst that found while more women than men have been mentored, 15 percent more men have won promotions. "70 percent of sponsored men and 68 percent of sponsored women feel they are progressing through their ranks at a satisfactory rate as compared to 57 percent of their unsponsored peers," discovered Hewlett. The beneficial "sponsor effect" is even greater for women and for people of color. "Sponsorship has long been the inside track for Caucasian men," Hewlett points out. "Mentors give. Sponsors invest." Sponsors are effective champions for you.

Why Women Tend to Seek the Wrong Kind of Sponsor

One of the biggest mistakes women make is in seeking a close relationship with an admired role model higher in the organization, often a woman who exudes an inclusive leadership style, says Hewlett. Such individuals often don't have what Hewlett calls "juice" -- the clout to protect and advance them up to the top. From Hewlett's research, people at U.S. companies believe that most top executives are "the classic, command-and-control leader who values deference from his lieutenants about all," and that most are "competitive types -- hard-edged, hard-driving guys who value quarterly bottom results." As Hewlett candidly admits, "They may not even be leaders you hugely admire."

Yet, I would add, you don't have to act unethically or lose your soul. Aligning with a powerful sponsor means you have more opportunity to use your best, often complementary talents, taking risks along the way, knowing that your alpha sponsor has your back because you leverage their success as they accelerate yours.

Sheryl Sandberg is a famous example. While she was oblique, in Lean In, about the extent of their help, she attracted several alpha male sponsors. One of them, Lawrence H. Summers, took her under his wing as a research assistant at Harvard. When he was tapped to run the World Bank, she came with him. In his next move to the U.S. Treasury, she became his chief of staff.

Ask Your Sponsor for Unvarnished Feedback

Display what Hewlett characterizes as "an appetite for the brutal truth." "I was lucky; I was raised by wolves, starting out at Harvard Business School," Barnard College President Debora Spar told Hewlett. Men took an interest in my career, but they were harsh. I had to learn -- early -- to get comfortable with that." As a result of organizational tendency to handle women with kid gloves, most possible sponsors won't give women the critique they need, found Hewlett.

How To Be Valuable to Your Sponsors

While outstanding performance are a given to get a steadfast sponsor, loyalty will make you indispensable. "Being a loyal protégé matters more than being collaborative or visionary or even highly productive" according to 37 percent of male managers and 36 percent of female managers, according to studies conducted for this book. That's also why Hewlett stresses the value, for career security, of having more than one sponsor. You never know when a sponsor might unexpectedly leave the firm and going with them is not an option, as the sponsor or you see it.

Be their candid eyes and ears about "what's happening lower in the organization. Be a valuable protégé on a team to which your sponsor assigns you by providing missing skills, contacts, mindset, temperament or a lens on the world that they lack. Three Hewlett cites are:

• Gender smarts or cultural fluency on a team that lacks diversity
• Quantitative skills or technical savvy on a team that is deficient in hard expertise
• People skills on a team that's bristling with eggheads and nerds.

Sidestep Permanent Lieutenant Syndrome

Even among newspaper bureau chiefs who are known for being blunt, mine in London was famous for making reporters jumpy -- and loyal -- because he often saw sides to our talents that were hidden from us. He did that for me, making me intensely loyal and helpful to him to this day -- and vice-versa. One afternoon, he came stomping up to my desk right after I got back from an interview and barked something like this:

You seem to ask so damn many oddball questions I am hearing, Kare. If you were a guy, you'd get punched in the face a dozen times by now. But I am hearing back from some that you got them thinking. They want to ask you questions. We don't have time for that. Yet I figured out how it can help us. You seem to sense how they could be helpful in giving us insights in other kinds of stories. After you write up the story I sent you to get, write up your ideas on that too. Got it?!

Without waiting for me to respond, he clomped back to his office. In so doing, he helped me see a way to grow beyond being a lieutenant in his group to becoming a leader, too, leveraging my unique talent.

I thought of that scene when I read Hewlett's admonition to not get stalled as a sidekick to your sponsor by recognizing your "special currency" -- how your differences from your peers can propel you to get promoted because they reflect leadership your company needs.

Learn more in Hewlett's chapter, Develop and Deploy Your Currency" and in Dorie Clark's book, Reinventing You. Leveraging your best talents with others who are too is a next step in your leadership ladder that can also speed your collective success in ways your can savor your work with others, a theme that is echoed in at least three other books that have helped me: The Talent Code, Before Happiness, and Springboard.