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How to Manage Cannabis Business Leadership In An Increasingly Brighter Spotlight

A critical element of successful leadership is appreciating the spotlight.  Leaders are in the spotlight.  People are watching them.  Closely.  Assiduously.  They’re the subject of the floodlights’ glare.  The aperture is set for widest exposure where all images are captured with precise focus.  As such, leaders’ actions are magnified and the shadows behind looms large, both clear for all to see, and, importantly, to interpret.

For those that report to them, leaders are the most important part of the day.  Leaders coordinate activity, assign duties, determine deadlines, appraise performance, and, metaphorically or sometimes literally, sign the check.  In all organizations, leaders model conduct–how to address colleagues, how to express alternative opinions, how to handle a crisis, how to advance initiatives–and thus create culture. They are prisms of refracted spotlight, illustrative of perception, reception, and action.

Leaders are equally in the perpetual gaze of external constituents.  From competitors to investors, vendors to regulators, every decision is being surgically examined to infer, deduce, and appraise the implications. It’s hard to keep track of stakeholders, as the directional or reciprocal impact can be far down the value chain.  But make no mistake, they’re watching.  Every decision serves as an anecdote from which generalizations are intuitively produced.

The spotlight is especially bright for cannabis business executives (CBEs).  CBEs face all the challenges of executives and founders across industries, but they undergo even more scrutiny because the industry is so new and, to some, disreputable.

Internally, the impact of each decision is significant as standard behavioral practices form.

There may be an ample current workforce of votaries, but the future workforce is wondering about and watching to see if the cannabis business is a place to make a career. Talking enlightened practice is one thing; practicing enlightened practice is another.  More than other places, the climate and composure of cannabis businesses are being considered by the talent that will construct the next creation.

Externally, the spotlight becomes a blinding sun.  Lawmakers, regulators, investors, the press, consumers, and others are primed to see the launch and early developmental stages of the cannabis industry as problematic. Each misstep will be amplified and analyzed to serve to confirm preconceptions.  Unlike established industries, the cannabis business cannot fall back on its reputation.  From a reputational standpoint, it starts in the red.  Main Street, Wall Street, and the Capital are all eyes wide open.

The good news is that being in the spotlight means that good conduct, smart decisions, and ethical standards will be noticed, big time.  Small steps have a big impact, especially when thrust into bright lights and sharp shadows.  The spotlight is an opportunity for CBE’s to shine.

Here are some simple, small steps that can have a big impact.

  • Treat your employees right: Offer robust compensation and benefit packages to attract and retain top talent from diverse business backgrounds. Include generous family health coverage, opportunities for professional development, and leave packages. There might be an abundance of eager associates now, but consider the skill set necessary to formalize and expand the business. By demonstrating an investment in your people, you cultivate talent, proud parents, and happy families.
  • Be scrupulous: Go above and beyond dictated transparency. Instill a corporate culture that maintains higher compliance standards than required. Go to great lengths to protect minors and to combat driving under the influence. Restrict points of sale to locations that exceed city or state ordinances. Obey smoking laws. Demand professionalism to build trust with the vigilant communities you serve.
  • Engage the local community: Join the Better Business Bureau. Source locally. Sponsor local charities, offer scholarships, and fund relevant research. Demonstrate commitment to your values by knowing the ethics of your suppliers. Embrace fair trade practices and identify opportunities to promote sustainability. Build trust between you and your community. It is your responsibility; it is part of your mission to serve the long-term interests of stakeholders.
  • Champion austerity: Displays of wealth will be viewed with heightened criticism. No one wants to see an ostentatious CBE; too many negative associations there. Employ moderation when planning corporate retreats, yearly bonuses, and large personal purchases. When in doubt, error on the side of prudishness.
  • Maintain poise: Make no mistake, controversy will continue to surround the industry and by extension you. It is not your job to change the perceptions of individuals. Author communications plans to address conceivable threats. When possible, avoid circumstances that could become aggressive or agitated such as concerts, protests, or festivals.
  • Finally, be humble. You are not an evangelist. Do not create or endorse anti-establishment logos, slogans or campaigns. Where possible, avoid politics all together. Certainly, engage in disinclined social advocacy.  The legalization of cannabis has been a long time coming. NORML is almost 50 years old.  You’re an executive, not a revolutionary.

Mainly, you’re one of many shepherds of the cannabis industry.  As a shepherd, know that the cannabis business is fragile.  Well led, its fragility becomes its strength.  Meritorious stewardship—here advanced as simple, small, sensible steps – will have an outsized impact.  Being in the spotlight at this moment in the growth and development of the cannabis industry constitutes a rare opportunity to demonstrate your ethical practice and deep concern for the community’s well-being.

There are no second chances when making a first impression. Especially when under the spotlight.

James Bailey, Thomas Larsen and Samuel Martin

James Bailey, Thomas Larsen and Samuel Martin

James R. Bailey is Professor and Stacy and Jonathan Hochberg Fellow of Leadership Development at the George Washington University School of Business, and a Fellow in the Centre for Management Development, London Business School. He has been the recipient of many teaching distinctions, including three GWSB Outstanding Educator Awards. In 2006 he was named one of the world’s top ten executive educators by the International Council for Executive Leadership Development. He has published over 50 academic papers and case studies, and is the author of five books, including the award-winning, best-selling Organizational and Managerial Wisdom and the forthcoming Lessons on Leadership. He has designed and delivered hundreds of executive programs for firms like Nestle, UBS, Conoco-Phillips, and Goldman Sachs, as well as several major law firms and US Congressmen. Dr. Bailey is a frequent keynote speaker who has appeared on broadcast programs for the BBC, NPR, and Fox News Channel, and whose work has been cited in such outlets as the Wall Street Journal, Fortune, Forbes, and Business 2.0. He is a frequent contributor to The Hill, Washington Post, Washington Business Journal, and Harvard Business Review. He is the past Editor-in-Chief of the Academy of Management Learning and Education. Professor Bailey has served as a dean, department chair, and program director during his 20 year academic career, and has been a visiting professor at London Business School, University of Michigan, and the Institute of Management Development (Switzerland). His practitioner-oriented essays appear on the website Lessons on Leadership (

Thomas Larsen and Samuel Martin are business associates and freelance writers .

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