Most learning and development professionals will admit they are passionate about their craft inside and outside of the office. But Greg Miller, vice president and chief learning officer at insurance giant Aflac, seems to take his interest in learning to a different level.
When Miller became interested in flying airplanes, for instance, he didn’t read a book or watch a documentary to learn how the physics and engineering of taking to the air played out. He enrolled in flight school and became a pilot.
When he developed an interest in brewing beer, Miller began learning how to brew his own. He said he is now close to doing competitions.
And when Miller decided he wasn’t satisfied with his ability to break down different sides of arguments — despite experience on his high school and college public speaking and debate teams — he became a coach, another experiential perspective that enabled him to add to his skill set.
Miller’s fondness for experiential learning, however, hasn’t always worked in his favor. “I haven’t figured out golf yet,” he joked.
Now Miller is trying to promote experiential learning in an industry where agility and change aren’t always top of mind — where, for the most part, formal classroom learning still reigns supreme.
“When you think of insurance, the first thing you think of is not innovation and getting quick change,” he said.
But since taking on the role two years ago, Miller already has made strides in changing the company’s learning culture, said Alex Stephanouk, chief risk officer and auditor at Aflac and a participant in many of Miller’s learning and development efforts.
Stephanouk said Miller has started to move the culture away from a check-the-box approach to one based on customized learning with a special emphasis on leveraging employees’ experiences. This is the case even if it means Miller takes personal ownership of an individual’s development, as he did with Stephanouk’s efforts to improve his executive speaking and communication skills.
Such customization and individual accountability aligns with Miller’s overall vision for learning at Aflac: to take the company’s development and training process and make it more practical and in line with how people learn and retain information best in a corporate environment.
To Miller, this has been, and always will be, through experience. “The challenge with training through classes is that it becomes less valuable the farther you move up in an organization,” Miller said. “We need to broaden our perspective around learning, compared to training in a class function.”
Shifting the mindset of an organization is no simple task. The insurance industry is primarily a face-to-face business when it comes to learning and development, said Annette Thompson, senior vice president and chief learning officer at Farmers Insurance.
That is starting to change, however. When Farmers, for example, shifted its learning culture in the early 2000s to a more online, experiential approach to complement its classroom experience, Thompson said ridding the culture of a “butts-in-seats mentality” was a challenge. Now about 50 percent of the learning at the University of Farmers, the company’s branded learning unit, happens outside of the classroom, she said.
Moving Aflac’s learning culture away from a butts-in-seats, instructor-led mindset should come naturally for Miller, given his rise in the profession and passion for developing people started with that situation in academia.
Miller graduated in 1985 from the University of Oregon with a bachelor’s degree in speech. The Washington native then moved on to San Diego State University’s School of Communication, where he received a master’s degree in the discipline. He capped off his education with a doctorate from the University of Southern California’s (USC) Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism.
His foray into the classroom started while in graduate school as a teaching assistant. Miller said he was responsible for the entire classroom experience, from lecturing to giving exams and preparing each course’s syllabus. After graduating from USC in 1990 — he officially finished his dissertation and received his doctorate in 1991 — Miller returned to San Diego State as a full-time assistant professor.
He taught at San Diego State until 1999. In 1993, Miller began consulting on the side with a company led by author and leadership guru Marshall Goldsmith which became Leadership Research Institute (LRI). In 1999, Miller left academia to focus on learning and leadership consulting full time with LRI.
“My interest was [originally] to become and retire as a college professor,” Miller said. “And what I found was I had taught about every class that I could teach, including classes that I had learned stuff about simply so I could teach them.”
Miller said his interest in moving to the corporate space also stemmed from a desire to shift his love of developing people into a more practical arena.
“I found that was more the focus [on learning] when you go out into the organizational sector,” he said. “That’s all they care about … it’s much more driven to that than let’s just chat about a theory and debate out the merits of a theory. It’s, OK, how can I become more effective? I started to do more and more, and liked it more.”
Miller became a consulting principal with LRI in 1999; in 2001, he was elected partner, a position he maintained until 2004. By then the grind of being a traveling consultant had taken its toll, and he wanted to spend more time being a dad at home.
During a client visit with loyalty and marketing services provider Alliance Data, Miller said he made a passing comment about his hectic travel schedule, which amounted to roughly 20 days a month. “This travel is killing me. I’m going to need to look for an internal position,” Miller recalled saying.
Two months later, Alliance hired him as its director of learning and organizational development, in turn moving Miller and his family to Dallas. He would eventually become the vice president of human resources.
Miller worked at Alliance for three and a half years before being called about a role with health care company Concentra that he said was “written for him.”
The role, which Miller took in 2008, was vice president of talent management, and consisted of everything in HR that wasn’t employee relations and compensation and benefits.
The move to Concentra ultimately enabled Miller to pick up skills in organizational development design. “A lot of white-board space; let’s get in and design it,” he said. Then, in 2010, with little intention of leaving and not long after Humana Inc.’s acquisition of Concentra, Miller received another phone call, this time from a recruiter about the job at Aflac.
The more people he talked to at Aflac, the more Miller became interested in taking on its learning challenges, which were similar to those at Concentra, but on a larger scale.
He started with Aflac in December 2011, taking the title of chief learning officer and moving to Columbus, Ga.
Always on Call
Perhaps the best example of how Miller has begun to shift the learning culture at Aflac is in its call centers, where the company is constantly bringing in new agents to field and process calls for customer claims.
Historically, new call center agents had been trained much in the same way students are trained in middle school, high school and college, with rows of seats in a classroom and an instructor. The model is based on the idea that presenting and showing information in a classroom is enough to change behavior.
Miller said this approach is ineffective — especially for corporate learning and Aflac’s call center, where much of the skills are picked up through experience. Aflac now has an eight-week training program that aims to ease new agents into the skills necessary for them to be successful through modified simulations and experiences.
After a foundation, or “level setting” period, which happens in a classroom, Miller said the real learning begins.
First, new agents listen to simulated calls with an instructor or experienced agent. This may happen repeatedly. During the simulated call, the new agent talks with the instructor about what went well and what didn’t.
New agents move on to listening in on real calls, this time with a lead — or agent taking the call — and another new agent. This learning group is called a pod.
In time, the lead will take a call while one of the new agents takes notes and fills out the call form, Miller said. The pod then debriefs, and the second new agent takes the notes.
Once the new agent has become proficient in taking notes — at roughly the three-week mark in the training — Miller said it’s time for that agent to start fielding his or her own calls while the lead takes notes. This process is repeated until the lead feels the new agent is ready to take a call and notes on his or her own. “We’re weaning them off,” Miller said, “but it’s all by doing.”
Once the lead feels new agents are ready to be entirely on their own, they field calls while leads and supervisors float throughout the call center, ready to take any questions the new agents may have.
Meanwhile, throughout the process is a running computer tally of how the new agents are performing — a sort of live scorecard.
Finally — and Miller said this is extremely important in terms of garnering learner engagement — once the training period is complete there is a graduation ceremony. Here, new agents are given a commencement address from a business unit senior officer; they also get a certificate signifying they’ve completed the training. The top performers are also recognized with awards.
If at any time newly minted agents want to sharpen their skills, Miller said they can participate in an abbreviated version of the course. In its entirety, the training program is aimed to “slowly but surely get you doing the job,” Miller said. “Not [by] talking to you, but learning by doing.”
This approach to learning has not only made its call center agents more effective, Miller said, it has improved employee retention and engagement. “Our turnover in our call center is like 12 percent, in an industry where you’re celebrated at 40 or 50 percent.”
The major challenge for Miller and his team moving forward is to replicate the way learning is treated in its call centers when working on the rest of Aflac’s development initiatives, particularly at the leadership and executive level. To address this Miller is creating Aflac’s first business simulation for leaders and executives.
Miller said the simulation — which is still in the design process — is supposed to identify company growth targets for users and then put them through potential situations where, based on a variety of variables, they will be asked to make strategic decisions.
“For example, if we shorten our product lifecycle, how are we going to invest in that?” Miller said. “What’s the answer? How do we price products? Are there different and better ways to price products to drive the process? We’re doing that with a simulation, with follow-up and some leadership pieces built in as well.”
In the midst of his work at Aflac, Miller said he also spends time developing his own skills as a leader and executive. He does this primarily by attending conferences — not the big ones, he said, just one or two a year — and reading.
One of his favorite individual development tools is looking outside of the learning industry for guidance. The practice of flying airplanes or brewing beer — or playing golf, for that matter — may not always translate to the corporate learning space, but that hasn’t kept Miller from trying to find hidden lessons in interesting places to apply to his role at Aflac.
“I was just at a conference, and my favorite parts were the people who were from non-learning fields,” Miller said. “… That’s where you get some type of synergy and go, ‘this could work.’”
For example, “People on Broadway tell great stories and build great characters,” he said. “Why don’t we [as learning professionals] learn from them?”