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Building the Cannabis Dream Team: Better People, Better Training, Better Experience, Better Business

The cannabis industry, worth an estimated $7.2 billion in 2016, precariously straddles the recreational and medicinal market.  To balance itself, the industry must put a premium on talent management.

Selecting and developing a qualified customer-facing team is an essential ingredient of success for today’s cannabis business executives (CBEs).  Customer service, order processing, purchasing, production, and distribution are made all the more challenging by the diversity of desires and needs of the existing and emerging customer base.

Team members—associates, delivery providers, and packaging processors alike—need to move comfortably and confidently between the role of pharmacist, biologist, chemist, holistic healer, and sales representative, depending on customers’ recreational preferences or medicinal requirements.  They will have to be educators too, explaining and helping to navigate the range of products. The cannabis workforce will also be auditors, adhering to the regulatory guidelines that govern sales and distribution.

The marketing department needs to cultivate and promote brands in a fashion that is sensitive to the specific needs of medical patients and attractive to recreational users. Packaging, design of facilities, location, advertising, and product selection will influence the ability to successfully serve both markets. Flexibility, competition and consumer awareness, and innovation will be the tools to stay abreast and ahead of evolving technology, shifting consumption trends, and unpredictable legal environments, all while satisfying a consumer base that ranges from expert to the novice.

CBE’s must create a selection process, compensation system, business culture, educational resources, and organizational structure that will draw top talent and prepare the workforce for vending a new commodity through an embryonic market.

Here are some guiding principles for CBEs to nurture a qualified, informed, and driven workforce:

  • Use best recruitment and selection practices: Advertise positions in local newspapers and mailers as well as online job sites, just like any other company would. Rent a table at job fairs. Prepare literature about the vibrancy and growth potential of the industry to draw the attention of professionals, young and old.  Make the job description respectable, so much so that it’s indistinguishable from other jobs.  Don’t forget that the staff must also possess clear ethics.  Liberally use vetting and background checks.  Cannabis businesses can’t afford to hire people who will perpetuate negative stereotypes.
  • Hire a diverse team: Employ minorities, retirees, homemakers, veterans, disabled, international, and more. Create a team that is representative of the broad spectrum of cannabis users in society. Unlock the buying potential of each recreational customer and to maximize relief delivery to each medical patient. Consumers need to feel comfortable and confident in their provider. The more diverse the team, the more relatable they are to the panoply of clients. Customers should see that the people who purvey legal cannabis are just like them: Respectable and friendly citizens and neighbors who come from many backgrounds.
  • Cultivate a culture of education and information exchange: Provide classes and seminars, dispense literature on trends, science, products and compliance with legal guidelines essential to success in the market. Materials on research, customer reviews, sampling and local ordinances should be available to all employees so that they are walking encyclopedias of products and their benefits. Publications like High Times, the Denver Post’s Cannabist, patient handbooks, and internet forums will feature the most current information of strains, consumption devices, concentrates, isolates, regulatory realities, and national trends.  Keep a library of resources that the team can refer to at any given moment.  Make experts out of every team member.
  • Prioritize understanding and becoming familiar with consumers: The goal is knowledgeable employees who can use recreational language when appropriate and give clear medical advice to patients who are suffering from real conditions.  From the recreational side, the range of customers is vast and increasing daily.  Experienced customers will have good handle on what they want, whereas newer ones will look for steady-minded guidance.  A medicinal user may be an epileptic teen, a middle aged person undergoing chemo-therapy, a retiree suffering from Crone’s disease, or a veteran or domestic violence survivor suffering PTSD.  They are looking for treatment and relief.  Some people want to get high, some want to get well.  Staff should appreciate and sympathize with the range of consumer predilections.
  • Don’t forget the production and order-processing side of the business: Although not to the same extent as the sales and marketing side, the back-room side will also interface with customers and those in the value chain. They need to be flexible and innovative to react quickly to developments in the monitoring climate and customer tastes and demands.  The packaging and marketing of recreational products is subject to greater scrutiny from regulators than medicinal product lines, the latter of which should be oriented toward healing and include all possible warnings. Prioritizing safety and proper consumption in an attractive manner on packaging will help to overcome the government hurdles and build critical reputational capital.

Preparing staff to represent a new commodity that means so many different things to so many different constituents is hard word.  But CBEs are pioneers by nature. Fostering an education-driven, creative, professional work environment for team members will help to pave the way in the burgeoning market. With North American sales projected to exceed $20.2 billion by 2021, it’s hard not to have fun selling a product that once carried so many stigmas but is now becoming mainstream.  Exciting times.  Make the times exciting for the team too. Take all care to make them want to come to work, to ensure they know their work is meaningful and respectable.  The cannabis industry is new, so there’s all the opportunity in the world for it to be led be CBEs.

Imagine a Michelin-rated restaurant waiter who acts as a tour guide for patrons rather than a clerk behind a counter enacting a transaction. An extensive knowledge of products and its usage, complete with a professional presentation, will ensure a positive experience for your clients.  As is well known, a satisfied customer is a repeat customer.  It’s all about the team.

James Bailey, Thomas Larsen and Samuel MartinJames 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 .

This Post Has One Comment
  1. “Cannabis businesses can’t afford to hire people who will perpetuate negative stereotypes.” You mean like the people who have spent decades bringing the cannabis industry to this point? i go to a lot of cannabusiness conferences and every time I hear stuff like this I have to refrain from the impulse to punch someone in the throat (exaggerated for literary effect). I’ve done nearly 16 years of prison behind cannabis. I can’t get licensed in the majority of “legal” states. I AND OTHERS LIKE ME ARE WHY THIS INDUSTRY EVEN EXISTS.

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