Peter Miller of OptiNose: To Work Here, Win the ‘Nice’ Vote

Corner Office


“I believe in culture so strongly and that one bad apple can spoil the bunch,” said Peter Miller.


Were you in leadership roles or entrepreneurial when you were younger?
I did have a real passion and an interest in business for some reason. Part of it was just finding ways to have ideas and solve problems. When I was in second grade, I had the idea to collect old newspapers and try to sell them to people at half price. It was not a very good idea.


I also played a lot of sports, and I was captain of both the lacrosse and soccer teams in college. In some cases I was the best player, but a lot of times I wasn’t. It was about understanding how you have success as a team. I wasn’t trying to be captain of the teams — this was back when the teams elected the captains. I think they chose me because I truly wanted the team to win, and I didn’t really care if I was the one scoring the goals. I think people can sense that.


It’s one of my core philosophies now. I call it “one mission,” and it’s a lot easier to do in small companies than large companies, because in large companies a second agenda often creeps in — the team has to do well, but you have to do well in a big corporation. You start thinking: “How am I doing, and am I getting points?” That’s what I love about small companies. I say to the team all the time, “If we succeed, everybody succeeds. If we fail, we all fail.”


Tell me about your parents.


They always gave me lots of latitude in terms of trying to figure stuff out. They gave me freedom to fail, and when I succeeded, I knew it was me succeeding and not necessarily the circumstances.


My mom was a nurse who gave up her career to raise us. And my dad was enormously influential. He grew up in Appalachia, truly in poverty, and became this remarkable guy — a real Horatio Alger who worked harder than anybody, and he never put himself above anybody. He went on to become a world-renowned radiologist.


How have they influenced your leadership style?


This really comes from my dad. Probably the most important thing that I try to embed in our culture is what I call possibility thinking. My dad never thought he was poor, never talked about the things that were going wrong. He always focused on the things that could go right. It was really powerful to me to see that anybody can achieve anything.


What was your first management role?


I was a young sales manager at Procter & Gamble. I had five salespeople working for me, and one of the guys was 55 and another guy was 48. They were really successful salespeople, so I realized that I couldn’t teach these guys anything about selling. Since I couldn’t teach them anything, I tried to cultivate trust and respect by working really hard at figuring out how I could help them in a meaningful way.


That led to a very important core value of mine, which is that you can and should try to create friends at your company, because underneath friendship is this concept of trust and respect. When you get that as a team, that’s when great things happen. And that comes from creating a culture of openness, of authenticity, of being willing to have fearless conversations. It’s about being yourself, not being afraid to say what’s on your mind.


Think about how people are with their best friends. You want them to succeed. And sometimes that means having really hard conversations. If that’s what’s motivating you — and you’re really trying to help everybody around you in a company as if they were great friends of yours — that’s really powerful.


How do you hire?


The ultimate filter we use is that we only hire nice people. When we’re finished assessing whether someone has the skills we’re looking for and has the experience we’re looking for, we do something we call running the gantlet.


We’ll have them interact with 15 or 20 people, and every one of them has what I call a “blackball vote,” which means they can say if we should not hire that person. I believe in culture so strongly and that one bad apple can spoil the bunch. There are enough really talented people out there who are nice, so you don’t need to put up with people who act like jerks.


A great friend of mine is Tammy McCauley, my chief administrative officer, who’s been with me now a long time. In that role, she’s everything from my scheduler to sort of my chief of staff — and as a result, her role to an outsider is not always clear. That makes her the most important vote on the “nice” vote, because if people aren’t willing to respect her, they’re not going to do well in our company.


I also look for authenticity. I work hard at understanding somebody’s greatest weakness. You’ve got to get people to be comfortable enough to say, “This is what I’m good at, and this is what I’m not good at.” It’s for their benefit, not just for ours, so they can come in and actually do well.


I work hard to really understand how they see the notion of possibility thinking. So I’ll ask them, “Tell me about a time you experienced a really difficult situation. I don’t care whether it happened at work or outside of work. What did you do?” And I’ll listen to their outlook about that.


What career advice do you give to new college grads?


You should really think hard about what you love doing and what you’re good at. It’s such a cliché, but I’m not sure people spend enough energy thinking about that.


The other thing I would offer as advice is keep your eyes wide open — look for the doors that are opening, find role models, look for the right industry, because it’s so much easier to be in an industry that has a tailwind than a headwind.