3 Keys to Building Sustainable Leadership Teams in Cannabis

March 02, 2021

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3 Keys to Building Sustainable Leadership Teams in Cannabis by Daniel Cheetham

Building businesses designed for long-term sustainability is a difficult task no matter the industry; and in an emerging space like cannabis, it is a challenge that is even steeper — and possibly even more critical to success — than ever.

But it’s not impossible, especially with the right leadership team shepherding the way. Because after all, people are the only sustainable competitive advantage businesses have access to today. 

So how do you hire leaders that will build businesses that are as nimble to changing laws and cutting-edge technology as they are sustainable?

Looking for leaders well-versed in the best practices from traditional industries — including food production and omni-channel retail — are a good place to start.

But finding the right set of skills is only half of the battle. 

Above all, leaders in this industry should be passionate about driving results, learning relentlessly and helping others to develop.

Beyond that, a sense of gratitude to be in this industry, driving something new from the ground up for the first time, will help leaders build that culture of resilience.

Finding the right people can help foster that innovation to create a sustainable company culture and business on multiple levels. 

Defining Sustainability in the Cannabis Industry

Y Scouts Co-Founder Brian Mohr and Head of Search Daniel Cheetham. Photo courtesy of Y Scouts.

Before we look at how to hire resilient leaders to create a more sustainable workforce, it’s important to define what we mean by sustainability.

At Y Scouts, we approach sustainability using the “triple bottom line” framework, which considers how a company approaches the following: 

  • People
  • Planet
  • Profits

People: Building a Sustainable Team

A company is made up of the people on board, not just the numbers on your balance sheet.

People don’t want to work just for the paycheck anymore, especially the younger generations.

A recent Glassdoor survey found that more than half of 5,000 respondents believe company culture is more important than simply a salary for job satisfaction.

For that reason, it’s important to understand the team’s motivation and get the team involved in the higher purpose of the business. 

“We like to say that we are a mission with a company, not a company with a mission,” explains Thomas Rimbach, Co-Founder and CEO of Baked Bros. He emphasizes that resilience is crucial because of the ambiguity inherent in the cannabis industry. Most importantly, he seeks executive leaders, regardless of their background, who share the company’s values of impact, excellence, and compassion. “It’s hard to have a sustainable team without them all aligning with those values. The team we’ve built has become a driving force because we all unite around those values,” Rimbach says. 

Planet: Focusing on Sustainable Business Practices

What do we mean when we talk about sustainable business practices?

Of course there are companies who implement sustainable growing practices, but that is more of a brand value proposition. That level of sustainability is separate from a sustainable corporate culture, which focuses on a company giving more than it takes from the environment and from its surrounding community. 

Unique opportunities lie ahead in the cannabis industry — specifically, giving back in terms of social equity, health and wellness, as well as consumption of natural resources and balancing it all.

Companies in the cannabis industry have an opportunity to build teams focused on conscious capitalism, where you strive to maintain a low carbon footprint but, equally important, seek to give back in multiple ways within your community. 

Profits: Building a Sustainable Company

As a cannabis company strives to build a sustainable team and practices conscious capitalism, sustainable profitability should fall into place.

Sustainable leadership teams deliver more value to their employees than they extract, giving employees new skills and competitive advantages.

This will, ultimately, drive revenue, but is even more important to create a company that will continue to move forward and grow. 

How to Build a Sustainable Leadership Team in Cannabis

Above all else, a sustainable cannabis business executive requires openness and a willingness to learn — which leads to resilience in the workforce even when an executive faces challenges they wouldn’t encounter in a more mature industry. 

“I learned really quickly that I can’t be the smartest person at the table,” Rimbach remarked. It’s important to accept leadership and guidance from those familiar with the industry and the cannabis culture as well as those with business experience in other fields.

For those who come in from outside the industry, especially, empathy and compassion is also necessary to understand why people consume the products and how they have potential to change and enhance lives.

Empathy and compassion will lead to more innovative marketing that ultimately create an exemplary consumer experience, which is something  a burgeoning industry needs in order to achieve mainstream acceptance. 

Challenges Cannabis Executives Face When Building a Sustainable Leadership Team

As the cannabis industry grows rapidly, it will experience challenges from multiple directions.

Many start-ups are hiring Chief Operating Officers or Chief Financial Officers for the first time, as they transition from an underground cottage industry to a corporation.

In this industry more than others, finding the right culture fit is paramount to success.

While certain skills, including innovation, marketing savvy, creativity and even supply chain management translate from more traditional industries, it’s important to find executives who can make the transition into a new, often stigmatized industry. 

By the same token, company founders may outgrow their roles as executives as the industry grows. They may not have the higher leadership skill set required to run a corporation.

Merging those two worlds within the organization can lead to enhanced innovation and sustainability as both types of leaders learn from each other. 

Similarly, top leaders who understand compliance and regulations may hesitate to join the field.

You want leaders who are open about the industry, and feel comfortable in the space, and are strong decision-makers who can move quickly. 

Addressing Talent Competition in the Cannabis Industry 

As the industry grows, competition will increase exponentially.

Right now, there are few cannabis industry veterans, per se, in executive leadership positions.

But competition will heat up as the industry matures, which means executives will have to work harder to showcase that company vision, mission and values to attract top leaders who understand the industry and corporate leadership, in general. 

“Every employee feels like we’re helping them develop. And I feel like I’m being developed by my team everyday,” Rimbach says. “So we have those systems in place to coach those opportunities and strengths. That’s not something I’ve normally seen in the workplace before.” 

Final Thoughts

Finding a top cannabis business executive to build a sustainable leadership team is not an insurmountable task.

By emphasizing a company culture that seeks to give more value than it takes and taking a purpose-driven approach to hiring, company leaders can propel the cannabis industry forward toward sustainability at every level.

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