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Big cannabis faces big challenges. Capital is in short supply, while inflation has pushed costs up and consumer spending down.
For America’s fastest-growing industry, this is a new and painful experience. But it is also an opportunity for reflection and growth, especially in shaping rich cannabis work cultures. As a rabbi working at one of the country’s largest, privately-held cannabis companies, I plan to make the most of it. Here’s how.
Focus on work culture
Cannabis has spent the last decade moving at break-neck speed. In 2021, the industry added 33 percent more jobs than the previous year, marking the fifth consecutive year where job growth exceeded 26 percent. Whenever growth happens this fast, work culture can suffer. There are plants to grow, investors to manage, customers to please, and licenses to pursue. But, when times get tough, there is nothing that matters more.
Peter Drucker, widely considered the father of modern management, famously taught, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” Drucker understood culture’s power to influence everything from a company’s communication style to its tolerance for risk. Most importantly, he knew that crises are rarely solved by great strategies but by great professionals — people united by shared purpose and a mission that is too important to fail. The cannabis industry is overflowing with such talent.
Modern-day cannabis owes its very existence to inspired activists and patient advocates. People worked hard to increase access to a plant they believed was life-sustaining and life-enhancing. The industry they helped birth is grounded in mission and prioritizes people along with profit at its best. Contemporary cannabis companies would benefit from following in their footsteps.
When my company won its first license to cultivate medical cannabis in 2003, DC regulations limited us to 99 plants. To survive, DC’s licensed growers sought out high-yield cultivars rich in THC (the primary psychoactive ingredient in cannabis). The higher the THC, the greater the demand and price point. However, this strategy did not work for every DC patient.
We soon heard from Lisa Leyden, the mother of DC’s first medical cannabis pediatric patient. Lisa was asking for a sit-down with DC growers. Her 7-year-old son, Jackson, suffered from intractable epilepsy and benefited from cannabis tinctures rich in CBD, not THC. My company was the only one to take the meeting.
What we heard that day inspired us to act. Within weeks, we sourced a high-quality CBD cultivar and hired a young scientist to develop a unique, CBD-rich tincture. We called the finished product Jackson’s Courage and provided it at no cost to D.C.’s pediatric patients (we still do). It was not a profitable decision, but it was an honorable one. And it set the tone for how we would do business going forward.
Jackson’s story came to shape the essence of our company culture, highlighting our values in a way no mission statement ever could. We continue to tell it as often as possible, often for our own ears like others. On hard days, it is what gets us out of bed and inspires us to push forward.
Most cannabis companies have similar stories — moments of profound impact and hard decisions that capture their highest ideals. Seek out those stories and share them! Use them to shape and fuel the evolution of company culture. People come to cannabis to have fun, do well, and make the world a better place. Cultivate a company culture that honors these values, and you will likely find teams capable of meeting extraordinary challenges. Below are five few tips to ensure your company culture hits the mark.
1. Make cannabis a force for good
Partner with your teams to make a difference. Host Purchase-With-Impact days to support local nonprofits engage in service activities and advocacy work, and leverage company resources to support important causes.
2. Center and celebrate the plant
Most cannabis professionals are driven by a love of the plant, not retail. Companies that treat cannabis like any other revenue-generating widget will fail to inspire. Instead, find ways to celebrate the plant and its impact. Launching a new strain? Don’t be afraid to nerd out with your team — share pics and highlight rare genetics or unique cannabinoid profiles. Offer high-level cannabis education opportunities to keep teams passionate about quality and invite your team to share impactful stories.
3. Prioritize diversity to avoid toxic work cultures
According to the MIT Sloan Management Review Journal, “Toxic corporate culture is by far the strongest predictor of attrition and is 10x more important than compensation in predicting turnover.” Researchers note that toxic work cultures typically “fail to promote diversity, equity and inclusion.” If not in place already, consider launching Employee Resource Groups (ERGs). ERG’s are employee-run and often help identify opportunities for a company to become more inclusive, and foster mentorship, networking, and career development.
4. Focus on transparency
Nothing kills work culture faster than favoritism and secrecy. Develop opportunities for employees to speak openly with senior leadership with no repercussions and no topics off-limits.
5. Consider equity
Companies in crisis often have limited resources to devote toward culture development. They do have equity. Create pathways for employee ownership, and you will find staff motivated to do whatever it takes to succeed. Beyond being a smart business practice, equity reflects the values inherent in cannabis – a plant that grows on every continent (except Antarctica) and does not discriminate in its power to heal, connect and inspire.
6. Hire for culture
Know the culture you want to cultivate and then hire for that culture. Ask questions during the interview that may reveal an applicant’s personality, and be sure you like what you hear. If you wish to build an empathetic, passionate, and positive workplace, be sure to hire empathetic, passionate, and positive people. Skills can be taught—personalities cannot.