How To Build Leadership Teams That Will Create a Lasting Impact in Emerging Industries

When you want to build out an executive team in emerging industries like cannabis, there are special leadership challenges.

You want people who can maintain your profitability and develop the next generation of leaders for future sustainability.

Every new employee is important to your business. But when you hire leaders for emerging industries, there are special considerations. 

Why Cannabis is the Model for Emerging Industry Hiring Best Practices

Photos courtesy of Phoebe Neuman.

The cannabis industry is expected to grow at a compounded annual rate of 26.7% over the next seven years. The market will reach $70.6 billion in 2028.

It’s not always clear in the fastest growing industries what you need next.

Just when you think you have it all figured out, you realize how much more there is to learn.

This is true in both startups as well as in the more mature cannabis companies.

Nancy Whiteman, CEO of Wana Brands, agrees that uncertainty is one of the biggest challenges, but one that presents an opportunity as well.

“You need to find leaders who are energized by that uncertainty and skilled at forging their own path. That requires courage, good gut instincts and an ability to read the market.” 

There are some things that make the cannabis industry different.

For one, it’s among the fastest growing industries. Along with this growth comes a wider public acceptance and a more open attitude about working in the business.

Although the cannabis industry is still very young, over the past few years some things have evolved. This includes a growing pool of experienced talent.

Certainly you want your next leader to have relevant experience and be passionate about the business. But what other qualifications do they need?

Of course, your CEO, CFO, HR director, lead cultivator or head engineer all require different technical capabilities.

There are, however, certain skills that you’ll want a new leader to bring to complement your existing team and to propel your company into the future.

Leadership Traits for Sustainable Cannabis Companies

We sat down with Whiteman and Shahbaaz Kara-Virani, Canadian sales leader at Dutchie, as they outlined several other skills that they feel are important for emerging industry leaders. 

Ability to Handle Ambiguity

The Biden administration is grappling with tax deductions, criminal possession and more when it comes to cannabis. The federal government upholds policies that Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas says are “half-in, half-out.”

And the cannabis industry is thriving in this sea of ambivalence. In a rapidly evolving environment, the best leaders project confidence even during periods when nothing is as it seems. 

Kara-Virani understands the effects of all this vagary. He uses situational interview questions to better understand potential hires.

It comes down to “testing [people] in the interview process, to put them in situations that they’re uncomfortable with, to see how they think.” 

In addition to ambiguity, leadership roles may vary from day to day. In the cannabis business, leaders must be able to wear many hats, particularly at startups.

Sometimes they must deal with the day-to-day operations and other times they must focus on strategic responsibilities. It can be challenging to know when to do what.


“Resilience is the ability to bounce back from a crisis or recover from a negative situation,” according to Whiteman, “Possessing the resilience to manage rough waters and the ability to respond quickly are… critical skills.”  

The most resilient people not only get up from a fall, they come back stronger than before.

This is an important quality for cannabis leaders because it helps them remain positive, continue with a plan and take the steps needed to reach their goals.

Resilience is correlated with autonomy, the regulation of stress, rational through processes, optimism and emotional intelligence, among other things.

It is a test of how a leader performs when times are tough. Resilient leaders perform at high levels over the long haul.

Prove Your Work

Kara-Virani remembers having to justify his answers as a high school student, a process he couldn’t fully appreciate at the time.

He recalls, “I was really bad at [justifying my] answers. Now I realize it’s the most important piece that you take [from] school, articulating the why behind your answer is everything.” 

When you explain your reasoning, you also explain your approach and demonstrate the ability to problem-solve.

This increases your credibility and enhances your critical thinking skills. The leaders in emerging industries must be able to think critically about the competitive environment and the challenges they face.

Beyond a bulleted list of accomplishments on a resume, potential hires demonstrate this ability by explaining the why, when and how of past successes.

Empower Others

When Kara-Virani held leadership positions in sports, we wanted to win more than anything.

This led to an epiphany.

“I realized the fastest way…to win was to help empower other people. Because you can’t win alone, especially on the soccer field.” 

The same holds true for business.

Successful and sustainable companies are not usually run by despots.

Build a strong leadership team of individuals that complement one another and work collaboratively. It can be tempting for leaders to make all of the decisions, particularly as the organization grows.

During the interview process, it’s a good idea to ask potential hires how they decide when to make and when to delegate decisions. While there is no one right answer, there is one that feels well reasoned for your culture.

Speaking of Culture…

Culture is an important consideration when you add to your leadership team.

But you don’t want to overdo it, particularly if your company values social equity.

It’s good to have people who complement rather than duplicate the personalities and leadership styles you have already. 

As Whiteman says, “Relying too heavily on a ‘culture fit’ can lead to an unwanted lack of diversity in how people think about and address challenges. You do not want to fall into the groupthink that can arise when…culture fit is the primary driver of hiring. We have some radically different personalities and viewpoints at Wana and I think it is one of the reasons we are successful.”

One useful approach to hiring leaders is to evaluate your company’s strengths and challenges to determine the type of people who will make a difference.

It is helpful to enlist the opinion of a retained executive search firm. This can lend greater objectivity and help your company find a leader who balances the existing team. 

Kara-Virani has a philosophy that serves him well: “My leadership approach is to help those around me discover their superpowers and to help unlock them. Eventually, my  hope is that one day, I will work for them. ”

If you need help finding your next great leader, contact Y Scouts


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