In the days following the May 25 killing of George Floyd in south Minneapolis, a group of about 20 Vikings employees gathered on video calls for a Tuesday night book club they hoped would help them sort through what they'd seen.
Eric Smith, a writer for the team's website, proposed the group to anyone who wanted to take a deeper look at matters of racial injustice. As the club worked through Robin DiAngelo's "White Fragility" a chapter at a time, employees of color and white staffers gradually opened up to share more of their own views and the experiences that shaped them.
Occupying a square on their screens was Andrew Miller, the team's new chief operating officer, quietly listening to deeply personal stories from employees he'd known for only a few months.
"You can tell when someone's actively listening, and you can especially tell on video calls — people are looking [around], or you can tell when their camera's off and they're doing other things," said Karin Nelsen, the team's chief legal officer in her fifth year with the Vikings. "He really wants to hear. I think he's aware of the fact that if he shares his view too quickly, it could change the nature of the candid conversation."
Miller's attentive ear and sharp intellect, those close to the 45-year-old say, are what guided him as a walk-on pitcher at the University of California, Berkeley; through time in Silicon Valley and Wall Street and law school at Northwestern; at the head offices of two Major League Baseball franchises (Cleveland and Toronto); and with the Vikings, who hired him in August 2019.
He is given more to asking questions than making pronouncements, an approach he honed in an inquisitive Cleveland culture under Mark Shapiro that produced five current MLB executives, including Twins President of Baseball Operations Derek Falvey.
Miller's predecessor, Kevin Warren, was a fixture at news conferences; Miller has yet to spend much time on camera in Minnesota. While Warren preferred crisp suits, the sight of a bespoke tailor fitting Miller, after he followed Shapiro to Toronto in 2016, caused Shapiro to do a double-take.
"He's the last guy I ever expected to see out of the same beat-up pair of khakis, beat-up pair of brown shoes," Shapiro said. "It felt like clothes were a waste of energy for him."
The unassuming approach helped shape Miller's first full year in Minnesota, when he needed to respond to events for which answers were rarely easy.
He led a committee in March to direct the Vikings' COVID-19 response, shifting more than 200 employees — including a football staff preparing for a draft class that would turn out to be the largest in modern NFL history — to work from home. Floyd's death, and the reckoning that followed, prompted a multilayered effort from the Vikings as ownership committed more than $5 million to fighting racism and the team's social justice committee amplified its calls for change.
As the season started, the Vikings announced first that two, then four, then all of their games at U.S. Bank Stadium would be closed to paying customers because of the state's coronavirus restrictions.
Amid all that, Miller directed a reorganization of the team's business operations, promoting five leaders (including three women) to executive vice president roles. The moves injected a dose of change into an organization that's had little of it at management levels, at a time when COVID-19 forced sports teams to rethink their structure and how they interact with fans.
He's keenly aware he's not the only one in the room who might have solutions.
"As you're developing as a leader, you may not realize how loud your voice is, or how what you say is listened to in a different way," he said. "When you throw out an opinion first, or you make a declarative statement early in a conversation, it may shut down other people from getting involved or providing their perspective. I want to make sure that people are heard. I want to make sure we get all the best ideas out on the table, and then we debate what our decision is without me overly influencing it in some way."
Raised in baseball
Miller grew up as the middle of five children in Riverside, Calif., the son of a doctor and a teacher who encouraged their children to follow their passions as far as they could. His sister, Lauren, is an artist; his younger brothers, Josh and BJ, taught themselves to play different instruments, and BJ is now a drummer for the rock band Health.
The older two boys, Geoff and Andrew, are 18 months apart, close enough in age to play on the same baseball teams. Geoff was a first baseman, Andrew a lefthanded pitcher. Neither was good enough to earn a baseball scholarship, but while Geoff spent a week trying to make the team at UC-Riverside, he said, his younger brother "was not going to take no for an answer."
Geoff put in a word with the Riverside Pilots pitching coach he knew — Bryan Price, who went on to manage in the majors — that his brother was going to try to walk on at Cal. Price told him to have his brother bring his glove for a bullpen session; they wound up throwing together two to three times a week the rest of the summer.
"There's some luck involved in knowing some people," said Geoff Miller, the mental skills coach for the Phillies, who has worked for four other teams. "But the tenacity of 'I'm coming to Cal and I want to be on the baseball team,' that kind of summed up Andrew, and still is part of who he is."
Andrew Miller graduated from Cal with a business degree in 1997, and worked in Silicon Valley before moving to New York for an investment banking career. Even through that time, and his pursuit of a JD-MBA degree at Northwestern, baseball kept calling him back.
It would be his time in Cleveland that shaped Miller's approach to leadership. He recalled sitting quietly in a meeting during the 2007 offseason — his first with the team — as the baseball operations department spent hours debating the final spots on its 40-man roster. Miller demurred when Shapiro asked for his opinion, saying he wasn't sure he was qualified to chime in.
As Miller recalled, Shapiro responded: "That's not good enough. You've been here, you've been listening to this. You should tell us what you think."
The lively environment thrived on fresh ideas from interns, who were told by Shapiro that they were the most important hires he made every year. When Falvey joined as an intern in 2007, Miller helped him move into his apartment; their desks were 20 feet apart, and they bonded over group lunches filled with baseball banter.
Shapiro taught them about empowering younger employees without families as a way of finding balance when they grew older. Falvey said he and Miller still talk frequently about how to apply those lessons now that they have their own kids.
"I know in sports, there can be high egos; we all get that, we're all around that," Falvey said. "But I think the environment he and I were raised in in Cleveland was to be pretty egoless: It's never about you. It's never about your one decision. It's about the team — and when I say 'team,' I don't just mean the team on the field, I mean the team around you and in your offices."
Vikings a surprise fit
Miller had shifted to the business side of the front office and been with Shapiro in Toronto for three years when Turnkey Search, the firm the Vikings used to look for Warren's successor, called him in 2019.
He thought the call, like many from executive search firms, was to ask for his feedback about someone he knew. When it became clear the Vikings were interested in him, it created a logistical problem: his wife, Jill, was seven months pregnant with the couple's third child.
"She's like, 'You've got to be kidding me — no way are we leaving Toronto before this baby is born,' " he recalled with a laugh. "I just said to her, 'This is a learning opportunity I don't get very often and probably won't get. It costs me nothing to spend a day of my life flying from Toronto to New Jersey; it's an hour flight, and when do I ever get to meet with NFL owners?' "
Vikings co-owner Mark Wilf knew Shapiro through Prince- ton alumni networks; Shapiro told Miller he could imagine him working well with Wilf.
"From the way they ran their business, there was clearly some desire for consistency, stability and a values-driven culture," Shapiro said. "When those things are lived and breathed, they're competitive advantages in a business where most people have perpetual change. I think Andrew valued those things."
The Wilfs interviewed six candidates over two days in New Jersey and met again with Miller and his wife. The fact he hadn't worked in the NFL, or been a COO before, meant there was "no sure thing," Wilf said, but they were taken with Miller's intellect and thought he would bring a respect for the team's culture and fresh ideas about how to improve it.
"We weren't getting a fresh set of eyes for the sake of it; we had a whole host of candidates, and we weren't saying it had to be one way or the other," Wilf said. "The character, the education, the relatability to people and the analytical, process-driven way he is, is something I think we're very pleased with."
Miller tried to meet with everyone in the organization, either in person or virtually, during his first several months. His time with Cleveland's baseball operations and his analytics background created a connection point with GM Rick Spielman. Emergency responses to COVID and Floyd's killing meant the two were working closely together relatively quickly. They've developed enough of a relationship that Spielman will periodically call Miller around 8:30 at night, to chat on his 25-minute drive home from the team's headquarters in Eagan.
"To me, that's the only way you grow as an organization: You have to be open-minded," Spielman said. "He'll ask me my opinion on some things, and I'll give him my perspective. It's the same thing on the football side; I don't mind calling him and asking, 'Are we doing this right? From what you've seen in your baseball career, is this the right way, or should I be looking at it a different way?' "
The changes on the Vikings' executive team came as a surprise to some in the organization, after the team parted ways with longtime chief marketing officer Steve LaCroix and VP of marketing and fan engagement Dannon Hulskotter among its seven moves. But Miller also added Nelsen, chief people and culture officer Lara Juras and chief financial officer Kate Shibilski to an executive team that had been composed entirely of men.
"Some of these changes are people who were with us for many years, and we're of course grateful for their work, but we really trust in Andrew," Wilf said. "He comes from a different background, not necessarily NFL but that new perspective and the approach he gave to us, we're supportive of it."
'Thinking about how to improve'
The Vikings have been advertising for a new chief marketing officer, who is expected to reflect a shift Miller said has been coming for some time, with younger fans interacting with sports differently than previous generations.
"COVID just accelerated the fact that we're moving from an event-centric business to a content-centric business," he said. "Maybe not this year, but we're always going to have these huge, huge events on Sundays; what else? How can we engage with people that have this deep-seated passion for the Vikings?"
The Vikings, Miller said, haven't implemented furloughs or asked anyone to take pay cuts this year. He's hoping that will continue.
"We've tried to cut back in other areas — things that may be more discretionary — all with the mind-set of, we want to try to keep all of our employees and not have to do any furloughs," he said.
The end of 2020 doesn't mean the end of the issues that 2020 raised. Even with a COVID-19 vaccine, fans might return to U.S. Bank Stadium gradually, and Minnesota's reckoning with racism figures to continue, especially with the trials of the four officers arrested in connection with Floyd's death this spring.
The way the Vikings adapted to change, Miller said, "has been one of the true highlights" of the year.
"I definitely like being a part of transformation and change," he said, sitting at home as his youngest child, Adley, cried in another room. "It's scary for all of us. It's uncomfortable. But the truth is, our world is always changing. I think starting out in the world of technology, it's just rapid — there's an expectation every 18 months the technology has evolved. You're always thinking about how to improve something, how to build something better."
For Miller, that often means letting others speak first.
"There's probably some people that come in and have this personality that screams, 'I'm the front. I'm going to lead — just get behind me and follow me into battle,' " Falvey said. "He's not that person, and in my opinion, that's not a bad thing. He's somebody that tries to embrace the entirety of the group. It's a quieter approach, but it's much more of something that I think sustains."
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