If you've just joined the conversation, I've been interviewing notable leaders to help define the superior conditions required for more human (and profitable) workplaces. 

You can call them "servant leaders" or "conscious leaders" if you must have a label. For them, the focus has always been on making people that work for them better, and more productive and loyal in the process.

While I won't slap either tag on this global executive, Ralf Jacob, Head of Digital Media Services, Oath (a Verizon-owned company), is certainly no exception; he embodies the very principles of a human-centered leader.

From Olympic diver to tech executive

As a young boy growing up in his native Germany, Jacob would show off his acrobatic skills flipping off diving boards at public swimming pools.That got the attention of a local diving coach who recruited him.

Ralf's accolades quickly ramped up from city diving champion to six-time state champion and first Junior German champion. By age 12, he had qualified for the German Olympic diving team and had his sight set on competing in the 1980 Olympics in Moscow. 

Then tragedy struck. He suffered a severe injury during practice that crushed five chest vertebrae and put him in a cast for two years. Just like that, years of hard work were cut short and Jacob had to put professional sports behind him.

With unfortunate endings come new beginnings. He continued to nurture his competitive spirit in new ways, including eventually carving out a career in the tech industry.

I was intrigued to unpack further how his diving background helped his climb to success. I learned that it taught him unforgettable lessons about the human side of business and leading teams.

Here's my exchange with Jacob over email.

What has your Olympic diving background taught you?

I experienced first-hand what having even one person encourage and believe in you can do. Imagine if that coach never pushed me to consider diving when I was a kid goofing off in that swimming pool; I would have missed a monumental moment to pursue sports at a competitive level. That's why I always strive to support my team -- to embolden their ideas, instill in them power to excel in their roles, and underscore the importance of taking on risks and new challenges. I learned early on from playing sports that every single person on the team matters, no matter the role or responsibility.

Specifically, what does supporting your team look like day-to-day?

I've [created] what I call an "open door, open ear" policy. I'm available to discuss anything with anyone -- whether a direct report or not -- and I actively practice listening more than I talk. It's not always easy to have this type of policy. It means that sometimes, I must place my own obligations on the back burner to ensure someone else has the space to freely express what's on their mind. But I wouldn't change it for the world. It has given me the opportunity to learn more about the team and business I lead that I never would have discovered otherwise. 

I find that some people are hard to manage. Any lessons to pass along?

One of the hardest lessons I've had to learn is how to make tough decisions, such as staff changes, especially when strong emotions and working relationships are involved. It can be downright distressing, but at the end of the day, you have to create a company culture that's rooted in respect and trust from the beginning.

Is there a strategy to create and maintain that kind of culture of 'trust' and  'respect'?

I frequently hold small roundtable discussions with employees to get a pulse on how everyone feels. Within these meetings, I encourage everyone to express their thoughts and concerns. I want to create a safe environment where employees know they're heard and their opinions are valued. 

What would you say leadership means to you? How do you define it?

I always say that my teams don't work for me; I work for them. That's what true leadership is. My job as a business leader is to clear hurdles so that they can successfully do their jobs. 

The theme I'm hearing you say is that moving to a more human leadership approach gets results, maybe more so than traditional management styles?

Taking it a step further, it's not just about getting results; it's about building a team that genuinely loves waking up for work in the morning. We spend so much time in the office away from our homes, that it's important to love what you do and your team. I get up in the morning and am incredibly excited about where the industry is going and the opportunities that lie ahead of me. It's my job as a business leader to spark that same excitement and fire within others. 

Expand on your 'open door, open ear' policy.  

Investing in the simple act of listening and prioritizing each individual at my company regardless of rank motivates and excites people about the work we're all doing. They know their ideas will be heard. When I look around and see people who have worked for me for 18 years through four different companies, it's a testimony that this approach works. 

What advice would you give to current or aspiring leaders looking to create more human workplaces?

Trust the team you build, and let people do the jobs you hired them to do -- you chose them for a reason. Give them the freedom to experiment and try new strategies. Sometimes these ideas work out, and sometimes they'll backfire and you'll have to bail them out, but risk-taking is essential to get to the next level. 

Lastly, who are your role models and why?

One that comes to mind is coach John Wooden. I've been blown away by his ability to lead a team, and think that many aspects of his leadership style can be applied off the court and within the business realm. The simplicity in his approach to coaching was most inspiring. Ultimately, his goal was to create good human beings, not merely awesome players, and he accomplished this by instilling trust and open-mindedness into all players. That's why his teams succeeded and that's why leadership teams will thrive too; there must be trust and open-mindedness. 

Check out other interviews in the series:

  • Ajeet Singh, co-founder and Executive Chairman of ThoughtSpot
  • Peter Cancro, CEO of Jersey Mike's Franchise Systems
  • Bob Johnston, CEO and chairman of Front Burner (the franchise management company for The Melting Pot restaurant brand)