Back to all stories

5 Keys to Successful Leadership

Success Labs has been in the business of developing leaders for almost thirty years. In that time, we’ve been privileged to host conversations with executives from diverse industries and backgrounds, learning from their various successes, challenges and directional shifts.

Their stories and pathways are all different. Over the years, one truth has emerged: there’s no one-size-fits-all solution to leadership. However, there are a few key elements that longtime executives point to over and over again. Prioritize these keys to leadership in your own career – and watch your influence, effectiveness and impact grow.

Building Relationships

Few leaders can function for very long as a lone tyrant. United Way CEO and President George Bell states that partnerships are key to buy-in – and that starts with building relationships.

Begin by getting to know the people around you, and drilling down to what motivates them. Lesley Tilley, VP of Operations at Our Lady of the Lake Regional Medical Center, credits this process for building trust in a high-pressure environment – “It’s easy to sit in your office and tell people what to do, but no one is following you.”

Your team will benefit from increased levels of empathy and emotional intelligence. Leadership speaker and Executive Coach Dima Ghawi found that focusing on relationships first can even bridge the cultural and experiential gaps that present themselves while on foreign assignment.

The best relationships are formed from a place of honesty. Krista Allen Raney, Assistant Vice President of Development at the LSU Foundation, says “you can be yourself. You can be passionate and funny and still be taken seriously because you always follow through and you’re doing things for the right reasons” – the power of what she calls “genuine leadership.” You don’t have to pretend to know all the answers – Eric Dexter at Civil Solutions Consulting Group finds that asking your team for advice signals respect for their expertise.

Building relationships with your reports and colleagues is important, but don’t neglect relationships with people who can guide and support you – even decades into your career. Trustworthy mentors can help you rise up to each new challenge in your role.

Putting in the time

There is no substitute for showing up in the trenches with your team. Jason Andreasen, Executive Director of the Baton Rouge Gallery, came to his role in the midst of personnel changes after only six months as the gallery’s Special Events Coordinator. He jumped in, and states that “seeing the faults and the fruits of your efforts with your own eyes is really important in not only making improvements but [also in] staying motivated.” Longtime health care executive Patricia Johnson prioritizes face-to-face time with employees in order to build relationships while solidifying mission consensus.

One caveat: know when it’s time to jump out of the day-to-day and leave the technical tasks to your team. This can be especially difficult for leaders who found fulfillment in practicing their niche expertise, and are now responsible for overall management. Embrace delegation, and learn to focus on finding solutions to new problems – a key process for Padma Vatsavai, founder of tech start-up Vinformatix. Beverly Brooks Thompson, business owner and former Foundations for Women’s President, sums it up: eliminate obstacles for direct reports and then let them do the work.


Learn to embrace innovation before industry competition leaves you scrambling behind. Brian Rodriguez, founder of marketing agency Gatorworks, is responsible for constantly staying one step ahead of innovations in the digital marketing space. He solves for this by fostering a culture of life-long learning in his company.

At CC’s Coffee House, CEO and President Celton Hayden says that cultivating curiosity and never being satisfied with the status quo has led to phenomenal growth. And forward-thinking CEOs like Claire Babineaux-Fontenot, Executive Vice President of Wal-Mart Stores Inc., recognize that diversity on their teams will enable them to address problems and quickly pivot in the face of challenges.

Be ready to shift in your personal development as well. You never know when you’ll be asked to rise to a new opportunity. If your career takes you from theatre major, to librarian, to CEO of a national nonprofit… take inspiration from Christy Oliver Reeves of I AM THAT GIRL. Get busy mining the diversity of your experience in order to better innovate in your new position.

Being a Dreamer

Your technical skills and past experience got you where you are today, but your ability to dream big for the future will make you a truly outstanding leader. Experienced executives don’t make themselves the center of the work – rather, they help their team see a vision that goes beyond the every day – like Gerri Hobdy, Director for Community Relations at Baton Rouge Community College.

Understand that being a leader with a vision does not entail changing your personality to fit the stereotype of a “charismatic” leader. Dr. Madhavi Rajulapalli, Chief Medical Officer for Aetna Better Health of Louisiana, advises that you simply take the time to clearly understand where you want to go, how to get there, and how you can make it happen.

Leadership pro-tip: harness the power of your mission to help your team stay the course through adversity.

Servant Leadership

Far from merely directing others, a great leader seeks to serve the people around them and find ways to lift up their work.

“A single organization is bigger than one person” says Sarah Cortell Vandersypen, Associate Director of Strategic Engagement for the LSU Foundation. “If you’re people-centric and care about creating a just world, you can create a really wonderful organization.” Another star at LSU, Justin Vincent (former running back and current Tiger Athletic Foundation officer) developed the mantra “be yourself, treat others with respect and always be willing to help people who need help.”

This ethic of care will permeate your team and organization – letting everyone around you know that you care about what you do, why you do it and who you do it for.

Bonus Leadership Tip

The leaders we’ve spoken with over the years all acknowledge the value of hard work. They expect the best from themselves and their employees. But they also note how important it is to be open about non-work priorities – like family and fun. Julie Laperouse, Director of Talent Development for the Baton Rouge Area Chamber of Commerce, finds that employees want to know who you are out of the office too. A well-rounded leader is one who can connect with a variety of people, on a variety of levels – so don’t be afraid to bring your authentic self to the role.


Success Labs is a leadership development and management consulting firm in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. For more than 25 years, our expert team of consultants has worked with hundreds of companies to explore their business potential and improve their company and cultural performance. Contact us to get proactive about your people strategy.

Free Email Updates
Get the latest content first.

We respect your privacy.