Stephen M. Miller | Crain's Las Vegas

In this ongoing series, we ask executives, entrepreneurs and business leaders about mistakes that have shaped their business philosophy.

Stephen M. Miller


Stephen M. Miller, Ph.D., is the director for the University of Nevada, Las Vegas' Center for Business and Economic Research and an economics professor at UNLV's Lee Business School. He is now in his 17th year at UNLV. Previously, Miller was at the University of Connecticut for 30 years. He has devoted most of his time in the last three decades in academic management, in addition to teaching economics.

The Mistake:

We like to say that controlling faculty members is like herding cats. You don't have a lot of leverage to control them.

Now, some might say that performance is improved if you ... follow more of a top-down approach or an autocratic approach to management. "You do as I say and that's it. I'm in charge." The problem in academia is we need to work as a team, but faculty members are independent contractors and for some of them, it's hard to get them to work as a team.

If you were a top-down manager and had a faculty member who was not doing the right thing, you could give them an awful teaching schedule – an early-morning class and late-evening class on the same day – but then you'll be at war with that person. I've had the experience in my management career of calming [similar] situations that have gone out of control.

I've had the experience in my management career of calming situations that have gone out of control.

The Lesson:

In one or two instances, I was confronted with a situation that was a bit out of control. A servant-leader approach has had a calming effect. A servant leader is someone who is thinking about the staff and what they can do to improve their performance. I always tell people I wouldn’t ask somebody to do something I wouldn't do myself. 

For example, sometimes you assign a faculty member to a committee. And [later] you're suspicious that that faculty member is doing a bad job so that you won't appoint them to another committee. What you have to do is identify what this person really cares about. And if they really care about something, then you appoint them to a committee that considers that issue.

And that's the only way I can figure out to get them to do their jobs if they have tenure because tenure is a big issue for managing in academia. You sort of lose control over them.

Being a good listener is key to hear what the other person's concerns are and whether there is a way that you can address them within the team framework that makes sense. Some things you really can't solve because you'll cause other people to get their noses out of joint. You have to be fair about the process.

Follow Lee Business School on Twitter at @lbsunlv.

Photo courtesy of UNLV

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