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Lead with Your Strengths; Own Your Differences with Kathy Miller

Have you ever found yourself at a table wondering why you’re there and what you have to add? The path to leadership isn’t linear and it looks different for each one of us.

In this episode, Kathy Miller, speaker, coach, and President of OPSisters reminds us our unique contributions are to be highly valued. Great leaders lean into their strengths and build teams that fill their gaps. Listen in as Kathy shares her leadership journey and breaks down why relationships are key and discusses the power of linking each team member’s work to a higher purpose.

After You Listen:

Key Takeaways:

  • Find ways to contribute in areas that aren’t necessarily your colleagues’ strengths to showcase your value and build your confidence in your abilities
  • Align employees’ goals with business goals to foster a sense of ownership and pride in their work
  • Foster positive relationships with your teams and focus on developing people to move the organization and company purpose forward

Things to listen for:

  • [02:12] Lightning round with Kathy
  • [05:18] Linking work to a higher purpose
  • [09:03] Understand what motivates employees
  • [12:27] The importance of focusing on relationships
  • [17:39] Navigating how to manage other leaders
  • [21:03] Kathy’s advice for her younger self
  • [23:54] Craig’s takeaways

Kathy’s Transcript:

[00:00:00] Craig P: As I sat at the conference table surrounded by people with MBAs from prestigious business schools, I thought, what is a guy with a master’s in higher ed administration and a degree in English doing at this table?

Welcome to Executive Evolution. I’m Craig Anderson. After spending 25 plus years in corporate America, I learned a lot of leadership lessons the hard way. I created this podcast, so you don’t have to. Many times, in our career we find that we are at a table and we don’t know why we’re there. I had a series of jobs that I never expected to have in my career. Somehow. I went from a bachelor’s degree in English to national leadership positions in Fortune 500 companies, and a lot of times I struggled to understand, what am I doing here?

I don’t know how to assess credit. I don’t know how to create credit score models. There are a lot of things I didn’t have a background to do, but eventually I came to realize that there was a reason I was at that table, there was a value that I brought, and I needed to focus on that value. And once I realized that I was able to really align with the meetings that I was in and bringing that value every time and really maximizing it while also learning other things that I needed to be successful in my career.

Today’s guest is Kathy Miller. She is an author, speaker, and coach, and the president and co-founder of Ops Sisters. She had a long career in manufacturing holding a lot of different leadership roles, and she learned a lot of great lessons along the way. So, let’s jump right into this week’s podcast.

Kathy, welcome to Executive Evolution. We’re so glad you’re here.

[00:01:47] Kathy Miller: Thanks for having me, Craig. I’m excited to be here.

[00:01:49] Craig P: Yeah, this is great. I’m, I’m excited. I’ve not had a lot of people have experience in the manufacturing sector on the podcast, so I’m really excited about having your insights from your career journey as we go through here. So, we always open up Kathy the lightning round. Are you ready to jump into some quick, maybe tough, maybe not, questions?

[00:02:11] Kathy Miller: Let’s do it.

[00:02:12] Craig P: First, what is the best leadership book you have ever read?

[00:02:16] Kathy Miller: We know there’s tons of classics out there, right? Good to Great, Lean In, Dare To Lead, all those. But one that I’ve read recently that I absolutely love is by Jane Dutton, Energize Your Workplace and it’s about creating high quality connections at work.

[00:02:31] Craig P: And how is that related to your experience in leadership, getting those connections pulled together?

[00:02:36] Kathy Miller: You know, I’m a people and process person, so I love people. I love connecting with people. I draw energy from people, and this has the science behind how it actually works, you know, and helps you. Yeah. Helps you with very practical guides on how to do things, handle difficult conversations, create trust, things that can be used, you know, in all aspects of leadership.

[00:03:03] Craig P: Fantastic, and it sounds like it kind of dovetails a lot of what we’ve talked around on employee engagement too, on how employee engagement and those connections, that’s what really builds long-term engagement from your employees.

[00:03:13] Kathy Miller: Absolutely.

[00:03:14] Craig P: Fantastic. All right. Second question, who is your leadership crush?

[00:03:21] Kathy Miller: I don’t have one.

[00:03:22] Craig P: You don’t have a leadership crush.

You have leaders out there that you respect or that you’ve seen as great models for people.

[00:03:27] Kathy Miller: Oh, so many.

You know, I’ve worked in corporate America for so long. I like to, you know, read books and, you know, the Cheryl Samberg Lean In, Brene Brown, all of those. I really enjoy their philosophies. I would say though, most of what I’ve learned have been from my own leaders, both good ones and bad ones, and trying to emulate different characteristics and stay away from certain characteristics.

Yeah, so I have a lot of people I’ve learned from that I really admire.

[00:03:56] Craig P: It’s so funny because I can think of that too. There’s some people who I know are kind of the big sexy leaders that we’re all supposed to be excited to, to kind of follow and legitimately so, but sometimes you think back to who the big impacts were. I’ve learned some things reading books, but the real one is what you see from the bad leaders. There’s so much to learn from bad leaders. It just really stinks when you go through it.

[00:04:18] Kathy Miller: Absolutely. Absolutely. And that’s what I tell young leaders. You know, everybody has a boss. Even CEOs have bosses, right? They report to boards. So, you know, you’re not always able to choose ’em. You’re not always able to get along with them like you do with the ones that you admire or have more similarity to, but you can learn from every single one of them, even if it’s what don’t want to do in your own leadership characteristics.

[00:04:44] Craig P: Yep. Absolutely.

Okay. Final question, define leadership in 10 words or less.

[00:04:51] Kathy Miller: I would define leadership as guiding and supporting others towards accomplishing a higher purpose.

[00:04:58] Craig P: That last piece to me is so important to the higher purpose, because you know, we think about like not-for-profits having these big missions and oh, everybody can get behind that kind of thing, right? But if you’re in manufacturing and you create steel, widgets, whatever it is, cars. How do you get that connected into that higher purpose for people? How do they identify with that?

[00:05:18] Kathy Miller: You know, it’s one of those things that I’ve really worked with a lot over the years in manufacturing, you know, multiple decades. Some products are a little bit easier to tie directly to a higher purpose and some, like when I worked in rubber manufacturing right, and you’re producing thousands of shapes and colors a day, I had to put together an on-purpose communication plan to let them know how what they were doing every day connected to final products and how they connected to the overall 10.

Human needs of mankind, you know, and making the world a better place. So, we would do that. We would bring in customers to talk about how important that piece that they were making tied to their mission in the world. And it really made a huge difference in terms of employee ownership and pride and knowing that what they were doing every day was making a difference in the world.

[00:06:15] Craig P: I can see that being incredibly effective because now maybe I’m, I just think I’m this person working a line, or I just have this job in accounting or whatever it is, but now I can actually see, wow, this thing I do actually has impact, and it matters. It’s not just a job. Right?

[00:06:31] Kathy Miller: Absolutely, absolutely. Everybody wants to have meaning in their life.

[00:06:36] Craig P: Yeah.

[00:06:36] Kathy Miller: and meaning is derived differently for different people, but at least communicating how what you do makes the world a better place, helps people, really makes a difference for those who are motivated by those types of you know, and, and everybody’s important in that mission, whether you’re the plant manager, the press operator, The maintenance person, everybody has a role to play and is contributing to something bigger.

[00:07:03] Craig P: And what did you see when, as that kind of grew, when you started making those connections for people, how did that actually impact the workforce?

[00:07:10] Kathy Miller: Oh, so much pride and energy. We would put up, In each department, right? Some of the customers and really how it was making the world a better place. So, when we had tours, when we had meetings, that was very central to the theme of why what we were doing was important. You know, it wasn’t just these big bins of, you know, circular, rubber pieces, and people started to really look for where the product was in their lives or, you know, make those connections and take pride in the workplace. And again, it wasn’t the only thing that we did to drive engagement, of course, some people derive a lot of meaning from having the ability to contribute to problem solving things that make the workplace better. So, there were a lot of things that we were doing, but really connecting the products to a higher purpose was one of those key things we did.

[00:08:04] Craig P: Great. Well, let’s shift gears a bit and talk about leadership. What was your very first leadership role that you had in your career?

[00:08:14] Kathy Miller: Well, believe it or not, I always say that I peaked early because I was the class president of my sophomore, junior and senior year at Gates Charlie High School many years ago, but I think you’re talking about in the workplace.

[00:08:28] Craig P: I will actually take that because I tell people my first leadership role was president of the high school marching band, and I was a terrible leader. I was a petty little tyrant, and I learned a lot from that.

[00:08:40] Kathy Miller: Oh, that’s great. No, it was really great leadership experience, you know, my first real leadership job in corporate America, I was pretty young. I was 27 years old, and I was put in a supervisory role in an engineering department for automotive electronics.

[00:08:56] Craig P: So, when you think back to that role, what surprised you the most when you were suddenly in charge?

[00:09:03] Kathy Miller: So, I literally had 10 years of professional experience by that time. So, there wasn’t a lot that surprised me I would say, I would have had a lot of bosses by that point. I’m a good reader of character and people, and like I said, you know, really watching your leaders and.

Adapting your style for, you know, how you can always get better and things you wanna avoid. But I think what was really interesting to me in that first leadership position is how even within the same function in the same company, people really are motivated by different things. You know, I had this team of seven engineers.

Some were motivated, it was industrial design and mechanical engineering. Some were really motivated by, “I want to do or create something that changes the world.” Some were motivated by, “I want to make as much money as I can and retire early.” Some were motivated by, “You know what, I’m going to come in, I’m going to put in my eight hours and I’m going to go focus on my family.”

Some were motivated by, uh, wanting to make a career at the company, some were wanting to make a career within the field, so it was really interesting to me the different perspectives that people had and the fact that some were so different than my own personal ones.

[00:10:25] Craig P: Yeah. And when you started to realize all these different ways people kind of were going to be moved forward and motivated, what strategies did you have to use to kind of meet them where they were?

[00:10:37] Kathy Miller: I always would help the team form their goals, our goals as a team together. So, we knew what we wanted to accomplish and we were aligned and there wasn’t a lot of infighting about who got what projects and, in my one-on-one discussions, I had to really understand and learn them and know what it was that was motivating them so I could align opportunities for them to feel like they were contributing in a way that mattered to them.

[00:11:07] Craig P: Yep.

[00:11:08] Kathy Miller: and sometimes that was the projects I put them on. The opportunities to get to know other departments, getting mentors that were aligned for them with their passions and goals.

The industrial design department was just a very small department and people had gone to school for industrial design, so most of them wanted careers in industrial design. And to move up in that world, you have to work on a lot of different types of products.

So I had a lot of turnover, actually, HR called me in and was like, “what’s going on here?” And I said, you know, people don’t necessarily want a career at this company, they want a career in this field, and this is not a company that has a lot of growth opportunities for those who really wanna be known in that field.

So, fear not they’re all being treated well, but you know, they just have, some different ambitions.

[00:12:01] Craig P: And if we go back to your definition of leadership, guiding and supporting others to accomplish that higher purpose, sometimes that higher purpose is not in line with staying with the company,

but at least in my experience with people and doing similar things, it really pays dividends because people are going to want to join you early in their career because they know you’re going to give them that springboard to either vault up in the company or to vault outside. Right?

[00:12:27] Kathy Miller: When we first start out, at least me, I was very worried about my career and what positions I was going to have and how quickly I was going to move, and what levels I was going to achieve and those sorts of things. But what you realize over time as a leader is that, the relationships you make along the way are so, so important, and you, I would say seven, eight times outta 10 are gonna run into the people or some portion of the people that you worked with along the way, and they’re gonna remember how you treated them. And how you made them feel, and you’re putting goodness into the world. I have a big, big component of my personality a around loyalty. So, that was hard for me when people were leaving. But I’ve maintained great relationships with everyone, and they know that I helped them get where they needed to be, and you know what? Quite honestly, turnover is a big problem for companies, great resignation and all those sorts of things.

[00:13:26] Craig P: Mm-hmm.

[00:13:26] Kathy Miller: But, if someone’s heart and soul isn’t into it, the company doesn’t want them there anyways. You know, they’re taking up room for someone who does have passion about the mission and does want to contribute there. So, I’m just really supportive when people come in and tell me they’re going to try something else, I just make sure they’re running towards something instead of away from something and that it’s best for them and I wish them well.

[00:13:49] Craig P: Standing in people’s way when they’re ready to move on. is not really a good thing. You’ve got to let people kind of grow and spread their wings and sometimes they’ll come back around and you’re getting somebody more well-rounded back to you.

So, you’re going through this and, and you’re finding everybody’s kind of motivations on learning that. But as a young leader what was kind of the big struggle that you faced?

[00:14:11] Kathy Miller: This happens a lot for young leaders particularly, you know, if you move quickly, is you’ll be in positions that people feel you don’t deserve or you’re, you’re not quite qualified for. I was in a very technical engineering department.

I was not an electrical engineer, you know, so a lot of times when I was at my boss’s staff meetings, I wasn’t quite sure what all my colleagues were talking about, but I found a way to contribute, right? With people and processes and things that weren’t necessarily their strengths. It’s just one of those things of finding your niche and you know, sometimes people will challenge you about, “I should have had this job. You don’t deserve it.” Find your strengths. Listen to people, you know, acknowledge their feelings, and if it’s my job, because I don’t plan to be here forever, “Let’s get you ready to be my successor.”

I am not threatened by that, and I’m also not threatened to say, “I don’t know” and ask you for help on your expertise, and that generally calms people down quite a bit.

[00:15:12] Craig P: It does, and I think for your own psyche, something you said there, and I talk with my clients about this quite a bit is, you know, realize the contribution you’re making. You’re at that table for a reason. You’re there because you bring value somewhere else.

And once you realize why you’re at that table, that really helps you be focused in and quit worrying about what I don’t know.

I mean, we always want to grow, but we’re here for a reason and as long as we can remember that that’s going to give us that motivation to keep driving forward.

[00:15:40] Kathy Miller: Yeah, focus on your strengths. You have individual gifts, you know, that you bring that hopefully don’t look like other people. I mean, because,

know, diversity of thought is what gets absolutely the best results. It’s okay if you don’t have the same degree as everybody sitting around you or you don’t look like them or you don’t dress like them, right? You’re at that table, you deserved it, you belong there. Lead with your strengths.

[00:16:06] Craig P: And now, Kathy, today, you’re a speaker, you’re a coach, you’re an author, and we’ll talk about that in a bit, but before you made that switch in your more senior leadership roles, what lessons from that first leadership role helped you be successful in your moral senior roles?

[00:16:22] Kathy Miller: Well, again, realizing that everybody is motivated a little bit differently, I think.

There were so many tools, right, that I learned along the way because I was very fortunate at the companies I work with. They developed me a lot. They sent me to a lot of leadership training and so, what I did towards the end of my career was use a lot more tools than I had at the beginning of my career, right? It was a little bit more gut instinct. I had an M B A, so I had some leadership classic leadership. Training things. But over the years we’ve evolved so much with how we empower people, how we get them aligned, you know, how we handle difficult situations and those sorts of things. And it would’ve been great to have been equipped with those tools a little bit earlier in my career, and so that’s what I focus on now, is working with individuals and teams to teach them what I wish I knew back then.

[00:17:18] Craig P: And when we’re sitting in that kind of bigger chair, leadership shifts, there’s still the people piece. Now you’re up at this higher level and you’re trying to focus out 12 months, 18 months, 24 months into the future. So, how did you balance kind of the people side of the equation? with that, “I’m in charge and visionary, I’m accountable side of the equation.”

[00:17:39] Kathy Miller: Yeah, I mean, it’s a continual evolution and I took tons of assessments. I think the hardest part about it, quite honestly, is when you become a leader of leaders, right? When you have your own team approaching people asking what they think, guiding and directing them, and you have to be respectful of the leaders between you and everyone else. You want to be acceptable. So, managing that I think, you know, was something that was interesting.

But yeah, as you go up, you’re much more into strategic issues, and I always told my team that, “Hey, here’s what the company wants to do. How do we as a team want to get better?” We use strategy, deployment and some of those so everybody was aligned. They knew what our common goals were, and then I let them run their business, right?

We’d have check-in meetings and cadence, and I was always telling people, “I’m here if you need me, but I trust you. Please come to me if you have issues, please come to me with suggested solutions.” Because you got to develop people, right? You can’t have the answers to everything. But there’s no way you can micromanage when you get into those senior roles or you’re not doing your job to move the whole organization and purpose of the company forward.

[00:18:53] Craig P: And that, you know, sometimes people say, “Well, how do you get the real story about what’s going on when your three levels removed from what’s going on?” Or two levels removed? And the answer to that is get great people between you and the other people that are bringing you what’s going on, right?

[00:19:09] Kathy Miller: Oh, absolutely.

[00:19:10] Craig P: Let’s not dive back into the bowels of the organization and get down there with the widget line and do it, right? That’s the difference. You’ve gotta get the right people and trust.

[00:19:18] Kathy Miller: You do, but it is good to stay in touch, right? So I was a manufacturing executive for years and years and years. I spent a lot of time on the floor. I wanted to be visible, I wanted to communicate. I wanted them to know me and trust me. Some people used to tell me, “It’s not fair because people tell you everything, Kathy.”

I couldn’t betray their trust, but it did keep me in tune so that when I was with my team I could ask general questions and you know, just kind let ’em know I’m in the know. I trust you to handle these things, but you know, there may be some undertones of things you’re trying to protect me from, but I got you.

[00:19:54] Craig P: You know, when you were down here, everybody told you everything.

And you know, in the case where you get elevated above your peers, those same people used to tell you everything and you talked about it all the time. You get up here and suddenly that goes away how do we keep that going?

[00:20:08] Kathy Miller: Yeah. It’s being visible. This funny story, I was at a company, and I was running their global operations for one of their big segments and I was walking through the plant one day and I walked up to a break area and I started talking to two guys, “Hey, how you doing?

What’s going on?” You know, and they just started to launch into complaints about the guy on second shift who was standing over there. And I’m just listening, you know, I’m not saying anything and all of a sudden one goes, “Who are you, by the way?” And I’m like, “I’m Kathy Miller.” Again, I didn’t go and tell anybody what was said, so that they could have trust. I never wanted to be seen as aloof or unapproachable. That was just not part of who I wanted to be, and so I wasn’t, and so that helped me keep me grounded, but I also had to walk that fine line of trusting my team to handle things.

[00:21:02] Craig P: So now here you are, experienced, you’ve gone through every assessment known to man, you’ve had lots of leadership training, and I’m gonna put you in a time machine. You’re going to go back to 27-year-old Kathy in that first supervisory role. What is the one piece of advice that you would give her, that would make her life easier, make her more effective? Smooth the path for her.

[00:21:26] Kathy Miller: Learn to breathe, it’s going to be okay. This is a long game. Not everything that comes up is a crisis. Take a breath, think about it. React appropriately and know that if you stay true to your values and you contribute and get results, everything’s going to be just fine.

[00:21:44] Craig P: I see that sometimes with young leaders, because they’re experiencing everything for the first time.

[00:21:49] Kathy Miller: Mm-hmm.

[00:21:50] Craig P: “Someday you’ll have gone through 10 of these and you gain the perspective that this too shall pass, keep focused on the future”, but it’s really hard when it’s the first time you deal with that difficult conversation or the really angry customer or whatever it is, right? It’s tough.

[00:22:06] Kathy Miller: Absolutely. You haven’t been in that situation before. You have your classic training, right? But there’s certain things that no matter how many books you’ve read, how many degrees you have, you’re gonna learn by doing, right? There’s experiences that you just absolutely cannot be prepared for 100% and that’s where you just have to learn to trust your instincts, rely on others around you and be sincere in your authentic self and people will wanna help you.

[00:22:35] Craig P: Well, so Kathy, as you know, as I said earlier, you are an author among other things. Tell us about your book and the stories that people can find there.

[00:22:44] Kathy Miller: Oh, great. Steel Toes and Stilettos, I co-wrote with a friend, colleague, Shannon Karels, and it was a true story. of when we were leading a manufacturing transformation at a business and the results that we got in the three years. So, it takes you through the journey of batch manufacturing, to lean manufacturing. A lot of people would know it as the Toyota Production System.

But there’s a lot of leadership principles along the way. It’s a business book, but it reads like a novel. So, you know, you learn about our friendship and all the trials and tribulations of trying to make a major transformation within an organization.

[00:23:20] Craig P: And Kathy, if people want to connect with you, follow you, what are the best ways for them to do that?

[00:23:25] Kathy Miller: One good way is LinkedIn. There’s a lot of Kathy Millers, it’s a very common first and last name. So, I’m Kathy Miller, MAPP, MBA, ACC. We’ve also got a website,, is another good way to get ahold of us and that’s where Shannon and I have a lot of our blogs and link to the book and articles we’ve written and podcasts we’ve been on. So, that’s another nice source to be able to get in touch with me.

[00:23:54] Craig P: As always on the Executive Evolution Podcast, I like to leave you with my three takeaways, I always frame them in the key leadership characteristics of competence, confidence, and calm. So, thinking about my interview with Kathy, how she talked about competence and a big piece of what I think was her success as a leader was learning how to motivate people.

Leadership is such a balancing act of first, setting out goals for the business, but then realizing, “How do I get people aligned to that and how do I meet them where they are?” And so, what Kathy shared is an important piece of leadership confidence – is realizing that everyone on your team has different motivations and we need to work with them to help them achieve those things that motivate them within the context of her business goals and that’s how we pulled teams together. So, it was a great example. In the area of confidence, she talked about knowing why you’re at the table and maximizing the contribution that you’re bringing to the table, another lesson that I learned in my career as well, so that confidence comes from knowing your value and how you are helping the larger company achieve its goals.

And then finally, in the area of calm, I loved her advice to her younger self. “Learn to breathe.” One of the things, especially for new leaders, as I said, is everything you experience, every challenge you face, every win you have is something that you experienced for the first time, and that can be overwhelming.

So, learn to breathe, learn to accept that moment, and that will help you keep calm so you can stay focused.

One of the other things that Kathy mentioned in our interview today is importance of leadership training and development. One of the things that I have found as I developed my leadership training program is there are some lessons that are just too important to lock inside of a program. So, if you would like to join one of my free masterclass on how you can have difficult conversations, please register online at for the next available program.

And remember, you can go from being an accidental leader to the greatest of all time leaders. All it takes is developing your competence, confidence and calm. See you next time on Executive Evolution.