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Aflac’s Virgil Miller: Five Life and Leadership Lessons I Learned In The Military

Aflac’s Virgil Miller: Five Life and Leadership Lessons I Learned In The Military

Published 03-28-24

Submitted by Aflac Incorporated

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Photo: Virgil Miller, President, Aflac U.S. 

By Authority Magazine Editorial Staff

Originally published on Authority Magazine

Success is earned, not given. I’ve noticed that every successful person I’ve known, regardless of gender, race or other circumstances, has worked extremely hard and endured major setbacks. Expecting success without demonstrating commitment is presumptuous.

As a part of our series about “Life and Leadership Lessons Learned In The Military,” we had the pleasure of interviewing Virgil Miller.

Virgil Miller, who joined Aflac in 2004, was named President of Aflac U.S. in January 2023. In his current role, Virgil leads all aspects of operations in the U.S. market. He is responsible for setting strategy and managing performance for Aflac’s multiple business segments and product sets in the United States, including Individual and Group Voluntary Benefits, Dental and Vision, and Life and Disability Solutions.

A former U.S. Marine who served in Operation Desert Storm, Virgil embarked on his professional career as a call center employee and worked his way up, holding several leadership positions during his time at Aflac. He is known for his ability to motivate teams and achieve results, as well as his passion for delivering innovative and caring customer experiences. He embodies Aflac’s mission to provide “care on purpose” by helping customers attain financial freedom and providing philanthropic support to underserved communities.​

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a bit about your childhood “backstory”?

rowing up in rural Georgia, in a small town outside of Macon, my life revolved around my family and my faith. I was always good at math and good with numbers, so when I was 12, I joined the finance committee at my church. In retrospect, this experience — collecting money, writing checks and being accountable for paying the church’s bills — laid the foundation for the career I have today.

I made the decision to join the Marines when I was in 11th grade, but it had always been something I had considered. My father served in the Army and had encouraged me to join the military to gain discipline and get financial assistance to go to college. From the time I was very young, I always aspired to have a professional career — to work with numbers and be a businessman. I never could have imagined how challenging and fulfilling my career journey has been, leading me to my current role at Aflac.

And what are you doing today? Can you share a story that exemplifies the unique work that you are doing?

In my current role, I oversee all U.S. operations for Aflac — everything from finance and technology to products and marketing. I joined Aflac in 2004 and have held roles across nearly all our workstreams, which gives me a holistic viewpoint of the company and the ability to bring people and teams together to “connect the dots,” innovate and collaborate.​

​One of our biggest priorities at Aflac right now is incorporating emerging technologies like artificial intelligence to make the process of filing claims more efficient for our customers. At the same time, we’re conscious of the fact that, as an insurance company, customers often reach out to us on their worst days. Our call center employees are on the frontlines of providing care to our customers when they need it most. Our goal is to implement technology that makes their jobs easier so they can focus on what they do best — providing reassurance and empathy to our customers during their time of need.

When I started my current role, one of the first things I did was ask all our company managers to file a claim — to literally go to Aflac’s website, click through the process, read each instruction, and follow each prompt. Putting ourselves in our customers shoes allows us to show up better for them. For example, we recently decided that, when one of our customers contact us with a cancer diagnosis, the specialist they speak with that day is their specialist for the duration of their treatment. Cancer is one of the most disruptive medical events a person can go through, and having a familiar person who is dedicated to guiding them through the process is one small way we can ease what is a very heavy burden.

Can you tell us a bit about your military background?

My time was spent in the marines as an active duty marine and active reservist. I was called into duty and served in operation desert storm. Upon returning home, I finished my time as a reservist and then transitioned into corporate America, where I have worked since. I feel very fortunate to have my experience in the marines as there were incredible lessons and learnings that I still use and apply to what I do every day.

Can you share the most interesting story that you experienced during your military career? What “take away” did you learn from that story?

My Marine Corps drill instructor was right out of Full Metal Jacket — loud, intimidating and profane. Then, one day, another man in our basic training group attempted suicide. After binding his wounds, and while waiting for the medics, the drill instructor 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 okay.” 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, full human being.

This experience made me realize that the tough, impenetrable drill instructor I knew was an act. It was an identity he put on, like a hat. In the military, and in business, sometimes you need to play the part. There are qualities and attributes you must embody in order to be successful. And just as important is knowing when to drop the act and meet people where they are, human to human.

I graduated number-one in my basic training program, in part because I embraced the persona of a Marine — tough, rambunctious, courageous. This lesson has carried over to my professional career as well — I believe authenticity is important, and that you should be yourself at work, but you also need behave in a way that’s appropriate to your role (and the role you want to have).

We are interested in fleshing out what a hero is. Did you experience or hear about a story of heroism, during your military experience? Can you share that story with us? Feel free to be as elaborate as you’d like.

Based on that story, how would you define what a “hero” is? Can you explain?

Does a person need to be facing a life and death situation to do something heroic or to be called a hero?

I will answer these together and begin with the end in mind so to speak. In short, heroism comes in many forms, and it does not have to be linked to life and death situations. The story that comes to mind first is a perfect example. When I was an active reservist, I was also attending college at the same time. During that time, I was actually originally called up and activated for Desert Shield. When that occurred, there was another active reservist with my same military occupational specialty volunteered to take my place. As an active sheriff deputy, he felt that it was important for me to finish my education, knowing that it would serve me well throughout my lifetime. He made a selfless decision — he put my interests ahead of his — and he went on in defense of our country. That is a hero. 3 months later, I was activated for Desert Storm, but I will never forget what that individual did for me.

Based on your military experience, can you share with our readers 5 Leadership or Life Lessons that you learned from your experience”? (Please share a story or example for each.)

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. Throughout my life and career, I have been guided by what my military service taught me, even if some of those lessons were inadvertent. They include:

  1. Be confident. Whether it’s an unseen enemy on the battlefield or impostor syndrome in your own head, you’ll always have fears. Be confident anyway. Be the person who’s entrusted with the toughest projects. I am where I am today because I spent a lifetime demonstrating trust in my own ability, taking on the assignment no one else wanted, showing good business acumen, making good decisions throughout my career and my personal life, and unabashedly absorbing leadership skills from all people and stages of my life. Confidence, particularly related to Black people, is sometimes misinterpreted as arrogance, but it’s not — it’s bold, and it’s smart.
  2. Know and be who you are. In the military and in the business world, there are certain protocols and etiquette that must be followed. But within those guardrails, it’s important to embrace your individuality — your unique experiences, skills and points of view. Diversity is business imperative in an eclectic marketplace. Your individuality will benefit the overall team — if you work as a teammate. As a Marine, I learned that we are called upon to achieve individual accomplishments because they, in turn, help the unit thrive, and in some cases, survive. My point is you should be your own woman or man and balance that with being the employee your boss needs you to be. And remember, a supervisor who you make look good is much more likely to advocate on your behalf, particularly in higher level meetings that you cannot attend.
  3. Work like hell and have reasonable expectations. I started my business career in a call center answering phones. It wasn’t my life’s ambition, but it was a good start, and I was contributing to the company’s mission, providing best-in-class service for and with whomever I was in contact. Don’t mail it in just because your current job isn’t where you want to be. It is where you are now, and it will serve a purpose on your way to wherever your true ambitions lie — in the same way that boot camp, while taxing and often tedious, lays the groundwork to becoming a confident and competent Marine. No matter what you aspire to be, there are no shortcuts to success. It takes time, patience and a willingness to learn.
  4. Dress for success. This sounds superficial, but it isn’t. I take a lot of good-natured ribbing because I like to look good at work — not flamboyant, just good. And why not? When I look good, I feel good. When I feel good, I work well. When I work well, people notice. In the military, this meant taking the time to make sure my shoes were polished, and my uniform was clean and free of wrinkles. In business, this means presenting yourself appropriately in relation to your job so that leadership sees you as a serious person. It’s important to note, however, that “dressing for success” is not one size fits all. With two daughters and my wife, I’ve lived in a house filled with Black women, so I know that at times, they can be scrutinized for not fitting within society’s idea of “professional attire.” But no one should be afraid to express herself at the workplace, so I tell my daughters, my teammates and colleagues that it is okay to rock your natural hair or don professional attire that embodies your style. The key is “professional,” which comes in many forms, and that’s a good thing.
  5. Sweat the small stuff. In the Marines, you don’t just march. You take 14 steps, each 40 inches in length, with the toe planted on the turn. Nothing is inexact or ambivalent. Attention to detail, in life-or-death situations, is crucial. In my business, which is about giving our customers peace of mind and helping them attain financial freedom, it matters a great deal.

Do you think your experience in the military helped prepare you for business? Can you explain?

I can’t imagine better preparation for the work I do at Aflac today. In the military, many of the benchmarks by which your performance is assessed are objective. In the business world, this is not always the case.

Early on in my professional career, I developed something that I now call “The Formula.” Any time I start a new role, I look at what’s expected of me from three dimensions:

  • People: My ability to form strong relationships with my team and my direct supervisor
  • Process: What success looks like in this role
  • Performance: How to be a leader and push my team forward

I created a scorecard centered around these three things, and at the end of each year, I “grade” myself on how I’m doing — using specific, concrete metrics. I’ve gone on to use this process with many of my direct reports, since I find it can take the emotion out of performance reviews by focusing on the facts.

As you know, some people are scarred for life by their experience in the military. Did you struggle after your deployment was over? What have you done to adjust and thrive in civilian life that others may want to emulate?

There is a transition for everyone returning home — and it is unique for every person. For some it is short, for some it is long. Everyone will go through something different, but without a doubt, everyone has some will go through something. For me personally, what helped me greatly was my family. I was fortunate to have a strong support system; my family was there for me and helped remind me of the why. My why was defending my country. When you connect the dots and remember why your role was important, it helps to adjust as you move forward. In terms of advice to others, I would share that it helped me to take on new challenges in life. As a marine, you are highly challenged and facing challenges becomes part of your DNA in a sense. Because of that, I think taking on new challenges in life, whether professionally, personally, physically, is always helpful, and particularly for those transitioning out of deployment.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

We are always working on new projects to expand the value we offer to our customers, and it is hard to pick but I will go back to our core — which is our cancer product. Since 1957, Aflac has been a pioneer in cancer insurance. Our passion for seeing our policyholder through this distressing time is at the very heart of who we are. The unfortunate reality is, cancer touches almost everyone at some point in their lives and everyone’s story is unique, especially when it comes to cancer treatment. We re-imagined and improved the protection our cancer policy offers in 2023 but we are not stopping there. We are continuing to look for ways to enhance the value we can provide families going through a cancer diagnosis, and have some exciting new projects underway to do just that.

What advice would you give to other leaders to help their team to thrive?

My experience in the military shaped the way I manage and lead teams. Some of the lessons I go back to time and time again as a leader include:

  1. 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 are in a position to manage others, it helps to have the credibility of their experience. And as a leader, you can build trust with your team by rolling up your sleeves and doing the work alongside them.
  2. Keep your head up. In order to complete a successful mission — whether that’s a military operation or a product launch — it’s pivotal to observe and analyze every angle and potential outcome, and then cascade that information to your team so that everyone is rowing in the same direction. Making your team look like winners serves everyone’s best interests.
  3. Be the tops. Commit to becoming one of the best at what you do. Encourage your team to do the same. The top few performers in any unit are always in demand, and leaders are constantly vying for their participation.
  4. Your record is your credential. Once you reach a certain point in your career, people care less about the school you attended and more about 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.
  5. Don’t typecast. People are complex, and they can surprise you. Seeing every team member as a three-dimensional human being reveals and strengthens the bond between everyone. It also encourages empathy — all of us have challenges we struggle with, but what matters is that we show up to the best of our ability every day.
  6. Success is earned, not given. I’ve noticed that every successful person I’ve known, regardless of gender, race or other circumstances, has worked extremely hard and endured major setbacks. Expecting success without demonstrating commitment is presumptuous.

What advice would you give to other leaders about the best way to manage a large team?

When businesspeople hear the word “military,” they sometimes hear “militant,” and they 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 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.

My leadership style was undoubtedly shaped by my experience in the military, but I’m inspired by athletic coaches — like Deion Sanders, Dawn Staley, and Mike Krzyzewski — as well. Great coaches have a deep understanding of behavioral and performance management and how to get the best out of people. Just like in the military, in sports, each individual works hard to accomplish their mission, but the outcome — win or lose — is owned by the team. Coaches, military generals and business leaders alike must find the balance between having people’s best interests at heart — creating an environment of psychological safety — while also holding them accountable for their results.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

My uncle was the first businessman I ever met, and for a long time, the only one I knew. I wanted to be like him — as a 12-year-old kid, I carried a briefcase to school every day, because that’s what my uncle did each morning. He was the one who first encouraged my interest in math, numbers and business.

Since then, I’ve been fortunate to have many mentors who have helped me get where I am today, including our CEO, Dan Amos. At the same time, I firmly believe that advancing in the business world is not happenstance. It’s not favoritism or reliant on a lucky break. It is planned — by you. So be brave and be smart. Own your career, and good things will happen.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

I’m deeply invested in the success of each person I work with. I make sure I build a relationship with everybody on my teams. And I’m coaching all along. You can only have those trustful conversations with those who report to you if you have a relationship that is built on mutual trust and respect. If you don’t have that relationship, you can’t do it. I tell everyone on my team, “We have to have casual conversations. We have to be transparent with each other. I’m here to help you because I can only win if you perform. I cannot succeed if you don’t — and vice versa.”

Beyond those with whom I work day-to-day, I’m honored and humbled to work for an organization that is so committed to doing good. We celebrate every time we pay out a customer’s claim — it’s ingrained in our culture. Beyond serving our customers, we have a longstanding commitment to supporting children, families and healthcare professionals who are impacted by childhood cancer and blood disorders. Since 1995, we’ve donated more than $170 million to childhood cancer research and treatment. And in 2018, we helped created My Special Aflac Duck, a smart, robotic companion that provides comfort and support to children, helps them express their emotions, and normalizes medical procedures. Over the past five years, we’ve distributed nearly 30,000 of these ducks, free of charge, to children above the age of three with cancer and sickle cell disease.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)

Perhaps it is not exactly a movement but is more of an attitude but there is phrase I say often at Aflac and while it may sound simple it is powerful — “It’s a great day at Aflac.” It is a reminder of how fortunate we truly are to work for a company that has so many amazing aspects — like our brand, culture and financial strength — but at the same time, it is also creates a sense of responsibility by all who hear and say it to do their part to make it a great day. It contains intrinsic positivity and accountability, and these two combined are a powerful combination to drive results and outcomes.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

My personal mantra is, “No quit, no retreat, no surrender.” I’ve built my career on a foundation of hard work, discipline, perseverance and compassion — qualities of a Marine. So, prepare to compete. The business world is a meritocracy. The best, hardest-and smartest-working people are the most likely to advance. No kidding, right? But some people don’t get it. Mediocre performance will get you mediocre opportunities. If you are not giving 100%, then you will not get 100% of the chances to personally succeed, with no one else to blame but yourself.

Thank you so much for these amazing insights. This was truly uplifting.

Thank you! Semper fi.

Aflac Incorporated logo

Aflac Incorporated

Aflac Incorporated

Aflac is a Fortune 500 company, providing financial protection to more than 50 million people worldwide. When a policyholder or insured gets sick or hurt, Aflac pays cash benefits fairly, promptly and directly to the insured. For more than six decades, Aflac voluntary insurance policies have given policyholders the opportunity to focus on recovery, not financial stress.

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