Sonja Ceri has a reputation for smashing the glass ceiling and running a company with a name you won’t forget: Four Drunk Parrots. Marketing strategist by day, mother of 2 under 4 at night.Someone with an opinion, a big smile and a determination to use business as a force for good. With a Masters in economics and a decade of agency experience, Sonja’s interests go beyond textbook marketing theory.
Sonja calls herself a storyteller, because that’s easier than listing strategist, journalist, digital marketer, entrepreneur, mentor, workshop trainer, keynote speaker and opinionated mover & shaker. Sonja’s passion for the environment and social impact has led to her business through B Corp and Climate Neutral certification as well as being a member of 1% For the Planet.
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Thank you for taking the time to answer our questions! We know you’re a busy person, so our readers will appreciate learning more about your backstory and how you got started.
Sonja Ceri: After completing a Masters Degree in Germany with a double major in Economics & Geography, I began my marketing journey in a recording studio that was specialised in commercials. We worked with the big agencies in Germany that produced advertising and commercials for the biggest brands. I learned a lot about working with agencies and was intrigued by this world.
Many years later I was heading to Fiji via Australia to study a Phd in Climate Change. However, it so happened that I never left Australia. Soon after arriving here, a business partner and I launched Media Junkies, a marketing agency based on the Gold Coast.
The agency was very successful, but I increasingly yearned to direct my focus towards becoming more sustainable and ethical in my business practices, which is what led me to start my own agency Four Drunk Parrots.
Can you tell us a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were starting out in your field? What did you learn from that experience?
Sonja Ceri: Most of my mistakes have been due to language issues. As English is my second language, sometimes I miss the mark a little. For instance, when meeting with a new client, a big fishing company, we were discussing their newly produced stickers. Kids had been harassing them on social media to get some and I innocently enquired: “Why is everyone bending over to get stickers.” Of course I meant bending over backwards, but all the Aussies in the room had a chuckle.
Another time I had developed a cold sore on my face just before a big pitch, and visited the pharmacy for treatment where I informed the pharmacist that I had “a big herpes on my lip.” She kindly informed me that in Australia, we refer to this as a cold sore. I looked at her confused and said “Why do you call it Coleslaw?” Awkward!
Somebody helped you get to where you are now. Somebody probably gave you some good advice or helped you out when you needed it. Who was that person for you? Tell us about it.
Sonja Ceri: The advice I’ve had probably came from my midwife. She said to me “you need a village to raise a child.” Being a new business owner I recognised the importance of this and set about obtaining lots of support.
I hired an Au Pair, my partner went part-time at his job so he could be more hands-on at home, I employed people from the day I started my company, and we received lots of help from grandparents.
Because I created this support network from day 1, I was able to juggle it all. Sometimes I have to pinch myself to believe that I got here. Looking back I am incredulous that clients believed in me enough to entrust their business to me when I was heavily pregnant.
Marissa Mayer, the CEO of Yahoo, inspired me. She accepted the role of CEO when she was 6 months pregnant and this inspired me to believe that it was possible to succeed while parenting. There are some more inspiring stories of pregnant CEO’s on our 4dp blog.
Many studies have shown that businesses with a clear purpose are more successful in many ways. When your company started, what was its vision? What was its purpose?
Sonja Ceri: When I started Four Drunk Parrots, I had a vision of starting a marketing company that embodied scrupulous ethical values and an unwavering commitment to sustainability. This vision was what inspired me to split from my former business partner and launch my own company.
Our purpose was and still is to provide an exceptional, results-driven service to our clients. Ensuring that every solution we present to our clients is a custom solution, designed especially for their unique needs and firmly shirking the less effective cookie-cutter approach. Caring for our planet and our people is at the core of everything we do. It is the reason why I get out of bed in the morning and why my employees stay loyal to the company.
Thank you for that. Now let’s turn to the main focus of our discussion. Can you share a story with our readers about how you led your team during difficult times?
Sonja Ceri: I can certainly share stories about leading a team through difficult times. When I started Four Drunk Parrots I had no office at first and our team worked from my home. When we finally got an office we went through bushfires, two major floods, and then survived a global pandemic. It has certainly come with its challenges.
During the pandemic, lots of our clients ceased trade and so marketing budgets were slashed. I was able to maintain all my staff by cutting back their hours a little. I had some cash in reserve to keep paying wages and when everyone had to work from home during lockdown I invested in all the resources each staff member would need to be comfortable doing so. I purchased standing desks, second screens, whatever they needed to be able to achieve their work goals with confidence. This helped my staff to feel supported.
Every Friday afternoon we had a Quarantini meeting between 4–5pm. It was an opportunity for everyone to check in and these meetings inspired a feeling of unity and togetherness despite the chaos of the outside world.
We also developed a virtual office space in GatherTown where we could hold meetings, collaborate on whiteboards and so on. It added a layer of fun to the dullness of zoom meetings.
Have you ever thought about giving up? Where do you find the motivation to continue through your challenges? What keeps you going?
Sonja Ceri: Giving up is not an idea that I have ever entertained. I’m not the quitting type. It is incredibly important to me to continue being a driving force for good within our industry and a role model for others. The more people who are dedicated to this cause the better. My passion and drive for this cause is what keeps me motivated to keep striving and continuing to grow Four Drunk Parrots.
What do you think is the most important role of a leader during difficult times?
Sonja Ceri: When things are difficult, I believe it is very important to demonstrate empathy and kindness while maintaining a firm and clear vision to guide others through the challenges with confidence and certainty. It’s important to lead by example and to help those who rely on me to feel secure and valued.
When the future seems uncertain, it can be hard to stay motivated. What is the best way to improve morale? What can a leader do to make their team feel inspired, motivated and engaged?
Sonja Ceri: There are many ways to motivate and engage a team. We have a weekly check in using the 15/5 platform. This gives employees the opportunity to share feedback confidentially and invites them to let me know how they feel about my leadership.
Mid-week we run our level10 meeting, a methodology we adopted from the EOS ‘Traction’. These weekly check-ins help us to address the elephant in the room and shift the focus to what needs to be done by the end of the week.
We often have Friday drinks and we engage in vision days where everyone in the company is invited to be involved in the decision making, even down to the littlest things such as where we purchase our coffee and who we do Pro Bono work for.
This level of engagement helps the staff to feel valued, heard and invested in the organisation
How can you best communicate difficult news to your team and customers?
Sonja Ceri: With total honesty. I don’t think there is anything to be gained by beating around the bush or sugar coating information, even if it’s something that is potentially difficult for the recipient to receive. Honesty builds trust and nurtures relationships.
How can leaders be able to make plans when the future is uncertain?
Sonja Ceri: It’s always important to make plans and this is especially true when the future looks uncertain for any reason. However it’s wise to make plans that are flexible. Plan for the best but prepare for the worst and this way you can weather storms as they arise. Create contingency plans and build a team that you can count on. Having the right people in the right seat is an important factor as well
Can a company find stability during difficult times by using a specific principle?
Sonja Ceri: Yes absolutely. One of the most important qualities any company can develop is resilience as this will provide the foundation for stability during any kind of upheaval.
There are several ways for a business to develop resilience and these are first and foremost, the quality of the leadership, followed by the culture and values of the business, the adaptability of the business and the discipline required to continually strive towards success while also adhering to the rigorous processes that you have in place.
What are some of the most common mistakes that businesses make during difficult times? What can you do to avoid making these same mistakes?
Sonja Ceri: A common mistake would be making knee jerk decisions without weighing up all the options. An example of this would be panicking and firing staff rather than looking for other ways to keep them on during a lean period. In this way you can consolidate your resources and retain quality employees rather than losing them and struggling to replace them when there is a greater need.
Making more money, getting new customers, or keeping your current ones is hard during good times. It can be even harder during hard times. But it’s important to keep growing. Can you tell me some of the things you do to make sure you don’t lose ground when the economy is tough?
Sonja Ceri: We can use the analogy of the aeroplane for this answer. The aeroplane has many different components. There is the pilot in the cockpit, who represents the leader of the organisation. There are systems and processes to check that the machine is functioning before takeoff. An aircraft needs to keep overhead weight lean so it can fly. There must be fuel in the tank, the route must be mapped out and all the electricals should be checked.
Products and marketing are like the left wing of the aircraft and sales are the right. My job as a leader is to ensure we know exactly what’s happening every step of the way and that we have cash in the bank in preparation for tomorrow.
I need to ascertain what services we should be offering. Where we can trim overheads and expenses. How we can float the company when the next storm hits. I always retain three months worth of wages in the bank so I have reserves to float the team for weeks or months if necessary, because we can’t rely on the government to do this for us.
These are the actions I take in order to ensure the longevity of my business no matter what the outside circumstances are.
What are five things a business leader can do to lead effectively during uncertain and turbulent times? Please share a story or an example for each.
Sonja Ceri: My answer would be:
- Lead with vision so people know why we have to stay true to our values and can’t give up in turbulent times.
- Cut employees some slack. Working from home during lockdown with kids was very challenging so it’s important to be empathetic and give people some wiggle room. Look after your people when times are tough and trust they will do the right thing for you and your business too.
- Lead from the front. Be available. Show vulnerability. Share that times are hard. Don’t keep a poker face.
- Look after yourself. Manage your stress levels and don’t run yourself into the ground.
- Prioritize what’s important and what is nice to have can wait.
Can you share a life lesson quote that is meaningful to you and explain how it has influenced your life?
Sonja Ceri: “The first rule of any technology used in a business is that automation applied to an efficient operation will magnify the efficiency. The second is that automation applied to an inefficient operation will magnify the inefficiency.” – Bill Gates
I’m a fundamentally lazy person, and I dislike having to double handle things because it’s inefficient. Improving inefficient technological operations is similar to the process of having to remove old wallpaper before painting a wall. It highlights the importance of getting things right the first time and why I live and work by this principle.
Jerome Knyzweski, VIP Contributor to ValiantCEO and the host of this interview would like to thank Sonja Ceri for taking the time to do this interview and share her knowledge and experience with our readers.
If you would like to get in touch with Sonja Ceri or her company, you can do it through her – Linkedin Page
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