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By Elizabeth Exline
If ever there were a team player, it’s Deb Miller. This University of Phoenix alumna recognized the value she could bring to the bigger picture well before the phrase “team player” was even a thing. From her 10-year military career to the nearly 20 years she’s dedicated to the United States Postal Service (USPS), Miller has been inspired by the rewards of leadership as much as she has by the sacrifices it requires.
“Deb is often one of the first ones to step forward and take responsibility for new projects, lend insights on improvements, and bring awareness to new trends and opportunities,” observes her manager at USPS, Eddie Alvarran.
Alvarran, who oversees sales industry and strategy for USPS, has worked with Miller for nearly two years. No wonder then that he’s picked up on Miller’s primary motivation: leadership.
“I always knew I wanted to lead people,” Miller says. “I like coaching.”
That passion inspired Miller to enlist in the Army after college as a commissioned officer. It led her to start her own business, earn her MBA and find ways to turn her knack for research into something that, as a sales industry specialist at USPS, she uses to support an array of people around her. It is, in essence, her life’s work.
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Had you met Miller when she was attending high school in her sleepy Pennsylvanian hometown, you might not recognize her. Today, Miller is a bubbly, extroverted person quick to smile or make a self-deprecating joke. In high school, it was a different story.
“I was extremely shy, which is probably why my counselors in high school told me not to go into the military,” she says with a laugh.
Miller mentioned West Point to her guidance counselors but was redirected. “They were like, ‘Nah, nah, nah. Here’s what girls do. They go out and they become secretaries, or you’d make a great mom because you’re so good with little ones.’ And I was like, ‘That’s a hard no.’”
Miller had her sights set on the Army, although she couldn’t explain why. She still can’t. She also can’t explain how she knew she wanted a commission rather than enlist as a private. Her mom was a homemaker, and her father was a minister and entrepreneur who ran his own roofing and siding company. Yes, Miller had family members who had served in the military, but they’d all enlisted as privates. Miller just seemed to instinctively know none of those paths was hers.
“There was no internet, so I just started doing research with books,” Miller says. “And it wasn’t until I got to the university that I found ROTC and my career took off.”
Miller attended a small, four-year university near her hometown and earned her bachelor’s degree in business as well as an Army commission that took her around the world. Her calling was as a logistician, and as she “did a lot of maintenance and warehousing,” she developed skills she would use later in life.
“You have to be someone who’s willing to do the research, number one, and really understand the customer’s needs, whomever the customer is,” she explains of logistics. “And then you have to understand the trends. You can’t just know what’s happening today. You’ve got to know the expectation of what could happen.”
Miller wrapped up her military career in Germany before returning stateside and opening a business. She worked as a vendor to ceramicists, which tapped her logistician skills nicely. Perhaps more importantly, this work led Miller to meet her husband who worked in IT across the street.
Eventually, Miller found herself doing what she does best: many things. She was running a business, raising a son, working as a mail carrier for USPS and helping to care for her terminally ill mother-in-law. As her husband’s career began to blossom, however, Miller realized even with all that, she wasn’t completely fulfilled.
“My husband told me, ‘You’re never going to be satisfied just being a business owner. You need to manage people.’ So that’s when I went to University of Phoenix and got my MBA.”
The online format worked well for Miller, who clearly had a lot to juggle. Chemical exposure during combat left her with insomnia and, ever the optimist, she saw opportunity where others might see tribulation.
“A lot of times I was doing my MBA work at 2 in the morning, because I was up anyway,” she says. “I figured it was either that or crochet.”
By 2005, Miller had earned her MBA and was ready to take the next step in her career.
“One of the biggest things I like about the post office is if you want to grow, you can grow,” Miller shares. So, six months after completing her MBA, Miller was back at USPS full time in a role that would evolve with time and eventually take her to Kentucky, where she lives today. After all, growth is a lifelong process and one that Miller embraces wholeheartedly.
“Deb is a leader within our organization,” Alvarran says. “Her passion for learning, sharing knowledge and ultimately guiding success are what help create characteristics of trust, confidence and leadership among her peers.”
Miller’s approach to leadership is in some ways intentional, in others inherent. Miller credits her military mentors as underscoring for her early on the difference between two kinds of leaders.
“You can either lead in a way that’s convenient for me, because it’s all about me and what I need,” Miller explains. “Or, you can lead in a way that’s more responsive to the needs of your team.”
Miller gravitates toward the latter and fortified that natural preference during her MBA program. “One of the things I think every instructor said was, ‘Whether you’re the boss or you’re the subordinate, you’re still leading your boss.’”
Everyone has weaknesses, in other words. A good team has a mix of people whose strengths compensate for the weaknesses.
Miller takes these lessons to heart. “Every job I’ve been in, I’m always trying to lead and help others become successful.”
According to Alvarran, she’s accomplishing this task beautifully. “Her obvious passion for helping others is exemplified through her work and helps provide a hopeful, positive outcome during times of uncertainty and change,” he says.
To this, Miller might say it’s just part of the job. Good leaders, after all, focus on results, not credit.
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