Grown, Not Born
7 minute read

Grown, Not Born: Melissa Murray-Serter's Candid Insights on Learning to Lead

We're launching our "Grown, not Born" interview series with a bang! This series dives into the journeys of remarkable leaders and their personal connection to management. We're thrilled to kick things off with Melissa!

Melissa Murray-Serter is an experienced operations and strategy leader, currently the Head of Creative Operations at Nothing, one of the most exciting brands in Tech right now. She has a a rich background in managing teams and fostering talent at Foundrs as well as Vice Media and  shared her insights into the challenges and triumphs of management with our founder, Sarah Touzani.

Sarah: Tell us about your first few months as a manager. What did you find most challenging?

Melissa: I think that the first time I became a manager I had a pretty easy run. I had been working with my direct report for a while so we had already established a good working relationship and it felt as though it was a natural evolution. The moment that I probably felt less equipped was probably during a conversation about promotions and pay raises. The business I had been working in at the time didn't really have a well-defined progression framework, and so it became clear that I wasn't able to handle this type of conversation as well as I would have wanted. To be honest, this is something that would still be an issue for me now. To be a great manager you need to have the support and infrastructure in the business to empower you to lead and nurture great talent. Without it, you're left pretty impotent.

To be a great manager you need to have the support and infrastructure in the business to empower you to lead and nurture great talent. Without it, you're left pretty impotent.

Sarah: Were there any moments where you felt like being a manager wasn’t for you?

Melissa: I think the biggest epiphany was realising that I didn't have to have all the answers. Being a great manager doesn't mean you need to direct everyone and give them all the answers. It's more about being a great listener, we have 2 ears and 1 mouth for a reason.

Sarah: What advice would you give yourself to help overcome the challenges you faced then?

Melissa: Ask for support and help from those in senior leadership sooner. Asking for help is not a weakness, and the more you know about what frameworks exist (or don't) to support you in being a great manager to your direct reports, the sooner you can start making an impact.

Sarah: If you could start your management path over again, what skills would you have worked on sooner?

Melissa: Coaching. Literally reading/listening to any books/blogs about how to coach a team. One of my favourite videos highlights a lot of the issues with leadership today and how we (managers) and the companies we work within are responsible for practically coaching our teams to be the best they can be.

Sarah: Can you share a significant learning experience from a mistake or failure as a manager?

Melissa: Applying the same tactics to every person in my team. It's a pretty obvious statement, but every person is different, so the processes and tactics you use will need to be bespoke enough to create the best ways of working and outcomes.

Sarah: How do you assess performance within your team?

Melissa: OKRs. Hands down the best method I know. Things are clear, mission-aligned, results-driven and most importantly - time-bound. Coupled with personal development goals.

Sarah: What about your own performance?

Melissa: Same as above. To have a better chance of sticking with any good habit, it's always easier if you enjoy the process. So if you find something you like, lean into it and you’ll find that if you are enjoying it, you'll become the perfect advocate for your team. Essentially, leading by example.

Sarah: What unique challenges have you faced with remote or hybrid work settings, and how have you addressed them?

Melissa: Fortunately for me, I had been working with my previous team in person 5 days a week for a few years prior to coming into the remote/hybrid landscape during/after the pandemic - so we were not working from scratch which meant our ways of working were pretty smooth. Most recently, I'd say the biggest challenge has been to decipher between the "noise" and what's actually "key information" on the numerous chat channels. People have got really used to using tools (especially in global companies) as a crutch for comms and so over communication or frequency of communication has gone up, meaning there can be A LOT of notifications (which are distracting) and "fluff" comms that means important comms can get lost. The best way I've found to address this previously is by defining guardrails in our comms strategy and agreeing on protocols to help everyone get the most out of their days. I'm not actually a massive believer in fully remote teams (for most businesses) - especially if they are creative teams. So where possible, I like to structure the work week to mean most meetings and group sessions are scheduled for in-person days, and focus work is scheduled for at-home days to avoid the need for too much online comms.

Sarah: How do you balance the needs of the individual team members with those of the team as a whole?

Melissa: The team is the sum of its parts, so if you nurture the individuals, the whole benefits. For me, it's always been really important to build a team charter - our operating manual - it helps us understand ourselves in the context of being in a team. Helping to bind us together, structure our mission and purpose and understand how we all collectively contribute to the success of our department within the business. Every single one of us matters equally - irrelevant of title, or seniority.

The team is the sum of its parts, so if you nurture the individuals, the whole benefits.

Sarah: How do you recognize and address signs of stress or burnout in yourself and your team members?

Melissa: Honesty. I have zero tolerance for lies in my team. I'm not interested in being a part of a team that feels like it needs to hide any truth, as it only creates more obstacles. Instead, all my team members know that they can (and should) flag if something is too much. The reasons vary, but I would rather we knew a team member's capacity was going to be impacted because they weren't feeling well, they had a hangover, a bad period, or because they had too much work on their plate - rather than them suffering in silence, or lying about being ill so they could catch a break. We are all collectively responsible both for advocating for ourselves and our team members. We can't see our blind spots - so we all have to be accountable for each other's wellbeing, like any real team.

I'm not interested in being a part of a team that feels like it needs to hide any truth, as it only creates more obstacles.

Sarah: How do you ensure that your team's work aligns with the broader goals of the organization?

Melissa: OKRs. Always.

Sarah: What strategies do you use to prioritize tasks when everything seems urgent?

Melissa: I'm a broken record, but OKRs.

Sarah: In the next 12 months, what manager-related goal do you want to achieve?

Melissa: To grow my team so that everyone can start to focus on their personal development alongside the core work. Becoming the best they can be so that our business becomes the best it can be!

Sarah: What tools or technologies have you found essential in managing your team effectively?

Melissa: Regular 1:1s. My team is small enough that I can manage it pretty manually, but for those with upwards of 5 reports, I think it's important to find a good people tool that links with as many of your internal systems as possible. I've used plenty of different ones, all with varying degrees of success and challenges. But whatever the tool - the best ones are the ones where your team already are so that you aren't creating more work for them with another process.

Sarah: Are there any tools you wish you had access to or you wish existed?

Melissa: I think AI is going to solve a lot of this within the next few months - but more than anything, I wish that businesses could structure their L&D and Progression Frameworks faster and better so that we could integrate that more meaningfully into all facets of the business.

We couldn't agree more!

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