Driving Innovation: Advice from Industry Veteran, Steve Miller

Written By Hannah Williams


Authentic Leadership

Now the president of GenSpan, where he helps family-owned businesses develop world-class, sustainable enterprises, Steve Miller is a well-seasoned change-maker and our former vice president. We sat down with the industry vet to get the scoop on how innovation has shaped his career and how he’s seen innovation shape Biltmore.

You’ve heard the word before. The one that’s everywhere these days, from the tech industry to the fashion industry, the culinary world to hospitality. But “innovation” is more than just a buzzword—it’s a business tactic, a way to drive long-term success, and it comes in many different shapes and sizes. Whether implementing a new idea, creating a new product or improving existing services, innovation offers a chance to drive change—and for Biltmore, innovation isn’t a new concept.

“William Cecil, George Vanderbilt’s grandson and the former owner of the estate, was dedicated to creating a culture of innovation, and that,” Steve Miller says, “has been the whole secret to Biltmore’s success.”

While it may sound like a counterintuitive goal for a company that was built on a mission of preservation, Mr. Miller, who spent more than two decades with Biltmore, has witnessed many of the triumphs that innovation has produced. Here, he attests to what a little innovation can do for your organization. 

Q. First things first. What does innovation mean to you?

A. In business—and life in general—you’re faced with obstacles more often than not, with roadblocks that look like they might stop you in your tracks. Innovation happens when you look at those obstacles and decide to find a way around them. You put yourself to work thinking about all the ways something can be done, rather than all the reasons why it can’t be done.

Mr. Cecil really shaped that understanding in me. He was a progressive thinker and realized early on in his career that most people who run companies like Biltmore, run them as museums. But he had a different idea: to change our culture from a museum culture to a hospitality culture. To treat visitors as guests rather than tourists. In the world of historic preservation, this was unheard of.

Q. How do you manage to stay positive and continue driving change even when challenges seem insurmountable?

A. Research, research, research! If the research shows change is necessary, then it is. Relying on facts rather than feelings has been the key to persevering with a positive attitude for me. During my time at Biltmore, instead of leaning on our opinions, we would monitor changes in the environment and in guests’ perceptions of them. Then, we would communicate the results and prove change was necessary.

Q. How have you fostered that same resilience in your staff? 

A. By walking the talk. If you want your staff to be resilient, you have to be resilient. I do whatever I can to lead by example and stay positive in front of my team.

Q. You’ve credited a lot of your success to teamwork. How do you ensure a team is aligned and inspired to embrace organizational change?

A. It all comes down to consistent communication. I establish a vision for the future and communicate it – over and over again. I’ve found involving those who will be most affected by a specific change is the best way to get them excited and make real change happen. Those closest to the actual work often have the best ideas for improvement.

Q. How can leaders empower their employees to continue innovating? Are there any tools or processes you’ve found to be effective?

A. Don’t make failure feel like failure. Reward employees’ efforts to drive positive change no matter the results. And remember, what gets measured gets done. Always develop a way to measure the results of a change initiative—and if an innovation effort fails, conduct a post-action review to identify and record lessons learned. There are missteps you can avoid when leading change successfully.

Q. What are some ways Biltmore has driven innovation?

A. Aside from transforming what was once a security-oriented museum culture to a hospitality culture, Biltmore has driven change with advertising. It sounds pretty basic now, but shifting our strategy from brochures and billboards to television, magazines and newspapers made reaching people more personal, more invitational. And it was a pretty huge change back in the late 70’s and early 80’s.

Biltmore has also driven innovation by introducing hotels and outdoor activities, which changed Biltmore from an attraction to a destination, and ultimately, reinvented the guest experience.

Q. What final piece of advice would you give to an organization looking to embrace innovation?

A. When it comes to innovation, persistence is crucial. Constantly monitor your external environment for changes, and challenge your leadership to develop responses to any opportunities or threats that might arise. Also, finding a mentor who you can confide in and who will provide encouragement through challenges can make all the difference.


Did you know 70 percent of change initiatives fail to achieve their original goals? The main culprit? The need for innovation. Learn from our team of experts and Biltmore’s time-tested best practices how you can drive innovation in your organization.

Sign up for our Cultivating Change Workshop or contact us today for more information.