Virgil Miller, Incoming President Of Aflac, On How Grit While Doing Grunt Work Propelled Him To The Top Of His Game
The time for which I’m most grateful may have been the most difficult of my life—days of 15-mile hikes with a 50-pound pack, lonely separation from family, and an unseen and unknowable enemy.
My time as a Marine made me more patient, more confident, and, oddly, more competent as a business executive working my way up the ladder of a $22 billion corporation. I have been guided by what my military service taught me, even if some lessons were inadvertent. Among them:
Don’t shun the grunt work
Whether it’s cleaning latrines or working an entry-level call center position, the lowliest chore may yield the greatest returns. When you eventually are in a position to manage others, it helps to have the credibility of their experience. So, it’s wise to keep your head down and just do the work. But it also provides an excellent opportunity to…
Keep your head up
Observe, analyze, and cathect the operation, the procedure, the mission. Gain a firm grasp of expectations your supervisor has of you as well as what expectations your supervisor’s supervisor has of him or her. Making your superior officer look like a winner serves your interests as well.
Be the tops
Don’t waste emotional energy on phantom concerns like “job security” and “promotion prospects.” Just become one of the best at what you do, be it a rifleman or an accountant. The top few performers in any unit are always in demand, and leaders are constantly vying for their participation.
Your record is your credential
Business folks care less about the school you attended than what you can do. I grew up in a small Southern town, finished high school and became a Marine, served in the Gulf War, and only later earned some degrees from not-so-famous colleges. And every day I direct the activities of prestigious university alumni who have yet to do the work at which I have become expert.
My Marine Corps drill instructor was right out of Full Metal Jacket—loud, intimidating, profane. Then one day a fellow in our basic training group tried to commit suicide by slitting his wrists. After binding the wounds, and while waiting for the medics, the D.I. knelt in the puddle of blood, cradled the young man in his arms, and said, “It’s alright, son. You’re fine. We’re getting you out of here. It’ll be OK.” It was the warmest, sweetest voice—a voice I would have insisted, prior to that night, could never come from that man. And it revealed compassion and tenderness of which I thought him incapable. After that, he was no longer a “type” in my eyes, but a three-dimensional, fuller human being.
Walk the perimeter
In the Corps, you don’t just march. You take 14 steps, each 40 inches in length, with toe planted on the turn, etc. Nothing is inexact or ambivalent. So rather than allow our company managers simply to invite our policy holders to “file a claim,” I have them go to the website themselves, click through the process, read each instruction, follow each prompt. What could be better explained? How can the customer experience be improved? That attention to detail, that emphasis on empathy, is essentially military.
Success is earned, not given
Does racism exist in America? Of course. Have I felt self-conscious as the only Black person in the room? Without fail. Have I been expected to work harder than some of my white counterparts? Occasionally. But two things can be true at once. I’ve noticed that every successful person I’ve known, regardless of race, has worked extremely hard and endured major setbacks. Expecting success without demonstrating commitment is presumptuous.
When businesspeople hear the word “military,” they sometimes hear “militant,” and assume such rigor, inflexibility, and uniformity would never work in a corporate environment. But if my career is any indication, most businesses would be greatly enhanced by the patience, perseverance, discipline, fortitude, and prudence (what we used to call “virtues”) of those who have seen the world through a soldier’s eyes. Such men and women know what it’s like, and what it takes, to stretch themselves beyond typical limits to achieve success in a way that is always productive, always collegial, and always faithful. Semper Fi.
Aflac U.S. Deputy President Virgil R. Miller has been named to succeed Teresa L. White as president, Aflac U.S., effective Jan. 1, 2023.