Sonya Ryan’s son entered the room while we were talking about leadership and creativity on Zoom. Sonya joined Lion 10 years ago, and unexpectedly found a way to cultivate both her technical skills and creative flair at work, all while raising a chatty little boy.
We talked about being a woman in a non-traditional industry, finding ways to use your creativity in a scientific role, and keeping your career thriving through having children.
Bringing creativity to science
Sonya joined Lion, “Fresh out of uni! I wasn’t expecting to get a job. I was looking at taking a gap year then doing post grad study. Lion sucked me in by giving me so many awesome opportunities!”
She started as a lab technician, a common entry position following a science degree.
“At Lion, those lab tech roles give you the base knowledge to jump into other opportunities. And those other opportunities keep coming, which is awesome!”
Putting her hand up for everything provided Sonya with lots of opportunities and exciting projects.
“I hated sitting at a desk all day. Getting to walk around and make products is what I enjoy. Once I became a team lead, I had more room to join projects throughout the brewery and be involved in value-creation and improvement projects.”
“We do a lot of testing and learning, designing recipes and drinks, coming up with cool ways to market them. We work closely with the marketing and innovation teams.”
Sonya loves that she’s not siloed in her role. “There’s a massively inclusive environment across Lion. It’s so much more engaging to be working with other departments on a common goal. It’s a good balance, as you have to have the technical side to get recipes out properly and commercialize them, but you’ve also got to turn on your creative side if you want to change the beverage industry. I love it, and I can tell my team love it.”
She loves the combination of creativity and technical skills, and when I asked how to create both in a role she shared:
- Put your creative ideas forward. “If you love being creative, bringing your ideas to the table is the starting point.”
- Use open space. “Having freedom in your role to be creative and being able to spend time to do that [is crucial]. You don’t want to load someone up with 1000 projects, and then they have zero time to think outside their projects.”
- Build your confidence. “Some people naturally have both creative flair and a technical background, but most technical people have to be coached into having the confidence to allow themselves to be creative.”
- Create a safe space. “Create a safe space where people don’t feel like they’re going to be told off for not doing the right work.”
- Collaborate. “There’s a mixture of sharing ideas and building off others’ ideas. A lot of collaboration goes on both within our teams and outside the business.”
- Look after your health. “Looking after your mental and physical wellbeing will enable you to have mental space. Otherwise you can’t open your mind to anything, because you’ve got so much going on.”
Handling leadership challenges
Sonya’s biggest career challenge came as her first leadership role.
“It was such a learning curve, but there was so much support around me. I had a team of six guys who were all much older than me, and I was the only female team leader onsite at the time, out of 15-20 team leaders.”
Challenges create growth though, and with what she knows now, Sonya’s tips for new leaders are:
- Try not to consider gender. “I used to look around the room and feel intimidated being the only female. Don’t be put off by that!”
- Focus on your strengths. “I knew I had more strengths than others in the room. Focus on using your strengths.”
- Don’t hold back. “For some of the time, I was shy and let the guys do the talking. But speak when you need to, have courage in yourself. I didn’t have the courage that I have these days. You pick that up as you get older and more experienced.”
- Be brave. “Be brave in everything you talk about and back yourself. My technical background was more than enough to be putting my views across as much as anyone else in those rooms.”
Things have changed in the industry in the time since Sonya took on that first leadership role.
“Back then, there was a lack of diversity. So much has changed in the last seven years! Now there are so many more women, people of different backgrounds and diversity of thought while recruiting.”
Leadership and motherhood
Being on parental leave certainly doesn’t mean out of sight out of mind at Lion, nor that your career needs to stall. Two-thirds of the way through Sonya’s leave, she enquired about a role opening and discovered she was already the preferred candidate. Sonya did the whole interview process from home with a baby in her lap and returned to work three days a week, later building to four and then five days.
For Sonya, managing career progression as a parent relies on good communication, continually networking, and understanding your strengths. The Lion Flex program has supported Sonya’s success as well.
“It’s awesome to have that flexibility and helps open up creativity. Flex is super important to me. We can work from wherever we want, and it allows you the freedom to do the job the way you want.”
Twelve months ago, Sonya was promoted to Beverage Development Manager for ANZ.
“Now, I have a wider focus and am a lot more involved in the strategy side. We’re a small team, but really focused and we get to do lots of fun things.”
“It’s a big playground for someone with a technical background. I get to do both of my passions – science and creating. I was torn at school because I used to do a lot of science but also loved art. I’ve naturally fallen into this career by communicating my passions.”