Getting company culture right key to success in marijuana industry

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Andrew DeAngelo (Courtesy photo)

(Editor’s note: This story is part of a recurring series of commentaries from professionals connected to the cannabis industry. Andrew DeAngelo is co-founder of Oakland, California-based marijuana retailer Harborside.)

Does your marijuana company have a documented mission statement? How about a strategic plan? How often do you discuss company culture at the executive and board level?

Are all of these things shared with the entire team on a daily basis?

Most cannabis companies I consult with do not have any of these – and, if they do, they are not used much.

Generally, the human-resources department is too busy to be focused on the big picture, and I’m often told by CEOs that there’s not enough time to invest in culture or get people oriented around it.

There is marijuana to grow, manufacture and sell – and there are investors to make happy. There are lobbyists and regulators to lead. There are simply too many external forces to manage.

I can understand that answer, as I have sold a fair amount of cannabis in my life. It’s still the wrong answer.

‘Culture eats strategy for breakfast.’

– Peter Drucker

Culture is what eventually will save the necks of all cannabis companies, not strategy or a dynamic CEO. It’s the team that works together, not the brilliance of the board of directors, that will win the day.

This business is difficult with many ongoing crises, most of which are moving at lightning speed. The only way to keep up is with a strong company culture.

There will be at least one existential crisis for every company – if not a few of them. When the chips are down, strategy will not save you, but the right team and attitude might.

As a consultant, I help leaders slow down enough to define the culture they feel is best for their company and then hire the right team to fit within it.

Some companies already have a culture; it just needs a tuneup or some additional attention.

In the heat of battle, it’s easy to forget to talk about how we work together or the importance of listening and solving problems together.

The urgency of the moment puts many of us into a default mode of boss/worker instead of team/goal.

Falling into that trap can make things worse as staff become alienated or burned out and leaders lose their influence or positions.

HR and the executive team

Two touchpoints are critical for building engaging and fun cultures.

The first is at the top of the organization: The board and the CEO must define, communicate and engage in an inclusive process to create culture, which is a living thing and has to be worked on every day by these leaders.

They also must exude the culture themselves and lead by the best of examples.

The second touchpoint is HR and hiring.

Companies that hire for culture – not just strategy or need – have better outcomes.

Give me a worker with the right attitude and a little less pedigree than the Ivy Leaguer anytime.

I’m looking for potential as much as I’m looking for expertise, because I can teach skills more easily than I can adjust attitude.

If your company wants a sober, disciplined and results-driven culture, that’s great – just make sure you set those expectations in the hiring process.

The CEO had better live and breathe by those same standards, or the company will be in a world of hurt. Let candidates know up front what kind of attitude and culture you’re trying to foster.

Employees these days value the environment they’re in and the people they’re working with.

Some workers love an intense place striving for growth. If that’s your company, test that attitude in the interview. Ask pertinent questions that are about temperament.

I also employ stories to solicit a more nuanced response. I ask candidates to tell about a time they cooperated well with a group of people or failed to do so.

I always inquire about why a story ended up with a certain outcome, whether it could have been different and how.

I also might ask a candidate about a useful leadership lesson and how they learned it. Allowing candidates to tell stories can loosen people up and get them off their script.

Another culture tool in an interview is to ask the candidate to describe something simple, such as making a sandwich.

When people teach others something, they reveal their emotional intelligence, their patience and their communication skills.

Culture in crisis

In the best of times, it’s easy to ignore, forget about or put off paying attention to culture and how we all work together.

The pandemic has brought people together culturally to keep cannabis businesses open.

But it also has mandated physical distance between colleagues, creating a 24/7 emergency situation.

Every day is an intense, long, difficult day. That’s hard on culture.

Great leaders understand that and embed with those teams to make sure the team has good morale, offer extra compensation during this emergency time and stay with the team – not in the Ivory Zoom tower.

By investing in a strong company culture, leaders will find tremendous ROI down the road, when another pandemic hits or a new regulation causes a crisis.

Strategy is a wonderful tool to deploy when everything is going well, but when things are in crisis, it’s the culture that will pull the team together and allow them to win the moment.

The CEO will look like a genius because, of course, he or she invested in culture in the first place.

Talent will come running as word gets out about a great company that’s a fantastic place to work.

Not only will the company perform better, but it also will feel better for the performers, and the investors will give everyone a standing ovation.

These are the outcomes we can look forward to when we invest in company culture in the global cannabis industry.

Andrew DeAngelo can be reached at He will also moderate a panel at MJBizCon 2021 on Oct. 20.

The previous installment of this series is available here.

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