Leading from Afar: An MBA Graduate's Take on Remote Leadership
Alexis Gerst ’17 '22MBA was familiar with managing remote teams before the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted the professional landscape. As a commissioned officer and acquisition program manager with the U.S. Air Force, her team already teleworked one day per week.
As more organizations began considering and adopting permanent policies around distributed work, Gerst saw an opportunity to develop a remote leadership resource to help employees navigate the long-term plan.
In the spring of 2021, she published her first book, “Leading Remote Teams: Embrace the Future of Remote Work Culture,” in which she offers actionable advice and leadership techniques to those overseeing remote workforces. Around that time, she shared how the book came to be and her military background in a Q&A with Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU).
Nearly two years and one degree later, the Master of Business Administration (MBA) alumna revisited the interview with her alma mater and shared what she's been up to since her book release.
What led you to SNHU, and why the focus on business?
I found SNHU through the recommendation of family members. Before I started on my bachelor’s degree, my grandmother was attending SNHU for her (BA) in Creative Writing, and my aunt was working towards a BS in Healthcare Administration.
Both loved the predictable, standardized format of SNHU courses each term and the convenience of online classes.
I was drawn to SNHU because their military-friendly pricing enabled me to finish my BS in Business Administration completely using Active Duty Tuition Assistance, and their military advisors understood the needs of service members. This enabled me to adapt my course schedule as the mission and my job necessitated.
My family is full of entrepreneurs. Having grown up working in a family-run horse boarding stable, I was naturally drawn to business. It was also the most straightforward and applicable degree program towards organizational leadership positions in the future.
As I progressed through my coursework, I learned that I really enjoy helping small businesses dig into their finances and understand how they can better provide value to their customers.
While working towards my BS, I took an elective class in Small Business Management and used my parents’ family business as the case study during the course. The ideas we implemented based on that case study (have) enabled my parents to increase their annual riding lesson revenue by over 200%–they were able to raise their prices and still have a waitlist.
Had you planned to enter into military service after your undergraduate degree, or was it a newer aspiration?
I actually enlisted in the United States Air Force before starting my undergraduate degree. Education was one of my primary motivating factors for joining the military, as I didn’t have funds to attend college otherwise.
Completing a bachelor’s degree is a requirement to apply for a commission in the military, so that step was critical to becoming an officer and a leader in the Air Force.
While serving as an enlisted member on active duty, I was able to complete my BS entirely online. The schedule of working full-time and doing coursework on my evenings and weekends was grueling— but totally worth it. I attended Officer Training School and received my commission less than one year after completing my BS in Business Administration through SNHU.
How have you incorporated your education, particularly what you learned in your MBA program, into your role as a service member?
As an Air Force Reserve officer, I serve as an acquisition program manager. In this career field, I serve as a leader of technical teams in the acquisition of weapon systems critical to our nation’s defense. I represent the government’s interest and frequently interact with highly educated individuals in industry, engineering and government.
The high-level business education the MBA program provides has been critical in helping me to communicate and represent the government in the best manner.
About halfway through my MBA program, I decided to pursue a concentration in engineering management — and I am so glad that I did. Engineering management is essentially what a program manager does, interacting with engineers and managing program development activities on a daily basis.
The courses in this program have helped me to understand how to best bridge the common communication gap. As a result, I’m able to be more proactive and effective in accomplishing program goals and objectives.
2022 brought about some career changes for you. Could you discuss your transition into a civilian career and what's next for you?
I separated (from) active duty in August 2022. Prior to separation, I took advantage of the DoD (Department of Defense) SkillBridge Program, which allows service members to intern with the private sector for up to 180 days prior to separation.
I started my internship with Second Front Systems in March 2022 with a simple goal to learn about and better understand both software and technology. I felt that all signals within the DoD pointed toward software development as the critical capability for future wars, and all of my previous experience in the military was focused on hardware systems. Throughout my internship, I gained significant insight and literacy into both software acquisition and cybersecurity.
I was offered a full-time product manager position upon completion of my internship, which I accepted. I’ve now been a product manager with Second Front Systems for primarily their cybersecurity team and also covered the stand-up of their Site Reliability Engineering & Operations team.
Defense technology can be a very demanding industry because our entire team is very bought into our mission, and there is always more work to be done. I’m constantly balancing the need to execute work for our team while watching out for burnout within the team, encouraging members to take breaks and prioritize self-care so we can keep pressing forward at a fast but sustainable pace.
As far as what’s next for me, I’ve recently taken an interest in learning more about coding and software engineering.
I just completed a beginner Python3 course, and I’m looking forward to gaining more coding skills in the future as I move toward adding “Technical” in front of my “Product Manager” job role. Most product managers start (out) as software engineers and then move into a product management or engineering role, and I’ve tackled this path a little backwards.
The core of product/program/project management and team leadership is relatively similar across different industries, and leaning into learning core software engineering competencies as I go is just strengthening my perspective, context and decision-making ability.
What is remote leadership, exactly, and why is it an important topic?
Remote leadership is leading, managing or otherwise influencing people through the digital environment, often geographically separated. This is an important topic because there is a certain human element to our communication and team connection that we lose when we aren’t physically working together in an office.
Remote work can become very transactional if we aren’t intentional about connecting through the virtual environment. As we saw with many people who were used to working together in an office before the pandemic and then were forced into remote work as a social distancing safety measure, feelings of loneliness, disconnection, frustration, confusion, anxiety, lack of communication and isolation became common.
With the right tools and practices, we can overcome those negative emotions to connect and communicate freely with our teams — even if we aren’t going into the office together.
While the future landscape of remote work is still an open debate, it will absolutely have a place in the workforce going forward. Some companies are ordering employees back into the office, some are adopting hybrid schedules to enable flexibility for their employees, and some have fully adopted a remote-first talent model.
The specific work arrangement that serves a company best will be dependent on a wide variety of factors: in-office work and hybrid schedules may work best for certain company cultures, industries and leadership styles. However, the companies who have adopted a remote-first model will have more flexibility in their expenses (no office space needed) as well as more flexibility in talent recruitment and retention.
For those organizations with a hybrid or remote-first business structure, leaders will still need to know how to connect with and engage their team through the digital environment to accomplish the organization’s goals.
Do you still lead a virtual team?
Yes, absolutely! My civilian job as a product manager at Second Front Systems is completely remote, with a few travel weeks sprinkled throughout the year to bring the team together in person.
Second Front Systems is a remote-first company, and my team is spread across the United States from Virginia all the way to California. We have core hours when most of our meetings and synchronous collaboration happens, and we allow the team to flex outside of those hours to complete their work when it fits their schedule best.
One tool our company has adopted to promote communication and a shared corporate culture is a virtual office called “Gather." I absolutely LOVE that I can virtually “walk up to my coworker’s desk” and start a conversation with them!
Was the pandemic the genesis for your book, or was it an area you were focused on prior?
The team I led at the beginning of the pandemic was allowed to telework one day per week prior to the pandemic and often engaged with contractors around the country, so we were familiar with remote work tools prior to the pandemic. However, the pandemic and subsequent challenges team leads in my organization experienced were the real instigator for the ideas in the book.
In the middle of the pandemic, I switched from one organization to a different one during a routine military change of assignment. The transition was done completely virtually, with the only time I actually went into the office being to collect my assigned computer.
Onboarding new team members is a frequently cited challenge of organizations with remote teams. Many of the ideas in the book are a combination of ideas of how the different organizations operated, what worked well, and what didn’t work so well.
Can you share your process for writing this book?
“Leading Remote Teams: Embrace the Future of Remote Work Culture” is a passion project, and it started out as a training presentation for the team leads in my organization.
As an avid reader, I always thought it would be cool to write a book of my own. With any major content production, it is usually a good idea to test and iterate to see if there is an interest in the topic using low stakes first before investing a major amount of time, energy and resources into the project.
I put together my ideas in a presentation and reached out to a few different training leads to see if their organization would be interested in the training.
After doing my first presentation and sharing the passion project on LinkedIn, a couple of my connections picked up on it and asked if I would be willing to do a presentation at the 2021 Logistics Officer Association Symposium. It was then, with an overwhelming amount of positive feedback and interest within my network, that I decided to organize the content into a book.
The actual process of writing the book was pretty straightforward. I read a few books on how to write and self-publish a book and just followed the steps. The outline went fairly (quickly) since I already had a high-level outline from the training presentation. I added some content near the beginning and the end to set the stage and fill gaps where needed.
Once the outline was done, I spent a few weeks of writing 1-2 hours every single day in the early morning hours before work and on the weekends. The words and actual writing flowed fairly easily for me as I have a ton of practice writing for my job, writing papers every week for my degree program and writing for a personal blog.
After the rough draft was finished, I had a friend review and edit, then hired a professional editor. A number of other activities followed before I could finally publish, including hiring professionals for book formatting and cover design.
The most work-intensive part was actually coordinating all of the book launch activities. I gathered an “Advance Reader Team” through my personal connections and LinkedIn network who were interested in the book topic to read the book before it was published, help spread the word during launch week and leave reviews shortly after publication.
While researching your book, were there any surprises or a-ha moments along the way?
I think one of the biggest surprises for me when conducting research for the book was how much money employers can save in reduced overhead expenses and reduced employee turnover as a result of utilizing remote work options.
On average, employers save $11,000 per employee working remotely on a part-time basis. The cost to replace an employee is at least half of their annual salary, but more for high-level employees.
The a-ha moment was this: “If we can drastically reduce expenses, improve employee quality of life and reduce turnover by allowing employees to take their job with them when they move so the company can retain their talent and expertise, then why isn’t everyone doing this yet?”
I think we have a real opportunity to increase job satisfaction, decrease workplace burnout and ultimately improve the bottom line of companies around the nation.
Who is this book for, and what will they take away from reading it?
“Leading Remote Teams: Embrace the Future of Remote Work Culture” is written specifically for team leaders at the tactical level — the people who are executing the organization’s mission in a measurable way every day. It is loaded with tactical tips on how to connect and build trust (in) your team, how to identify and execute your priorities and ways to clarify your digital communication.
However, feedback from the reviews recommends this as a useful read for any organizational leaders who are engaging remote employees and even remote workers who are individual contributors themselves.
Whether you are working remotely part-time or full-time, the ideas in the book will help you improve your communication and influence in the digital environment.
Discover more about SNHU’s online MBA: Find out what courses you'll take, skills you’ll learn and how to request information about the program.
Rebecca LeBoeuf ’18 '22G is a writer at Southern New Hampshire University. Connect with her on LinkedIn.
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