Finding Your Inner Power as a Cannabusiness Leader: A Conversation with Steve Scheier

Written by Steve Scheier

The road one takes to the cannabis industry may be direct, or it may be a snaking, convoluted path with twists and turns symbolic of climbing a great mountain. The industry presents a magnificent opportunity to be a part of one of the fastest growing global communities, thriving around a resurrected plant that’s become a godsend for alternative wellness. Because of those coiled curves, however, it can be fraught with challenges that can make nascent business leaders question whether they have made or are making the right choices.

People who want to embark on a cannabusiness journey may be fueled with plant passion, and have tall plans to change the world. They may not have prior leadership experience, though, and they may never have been in a role where they had any kind of power. That can turn out to be a real problem. I recently spoke with Steve Scheier, an Apple veteran, former colleague of Steve Jobs, and co-author of a recent book regarding power and leadership in the cannabis industry called Power Up to learn more.


Jason S. Lupoi, Ph.D.: Many people in leadership roles, especially those new to the role, may strive to be friends with the staff, thinking that it creates a more cohesive working environment, or that they are “the cool boss.” In Power Up, you caution against this. Can you comment as to why this is fraught with problems?

Steve Scheier: If you’re the leader of the organization, you have one core responsibility: to create a safe environment for your people to work in. You want to be friendly, but you also need to set boundaries. I’ve become friends with people that I’ve worked with long after I stopped being their boss. This may be a “boomer” approach, but as a leader, you job is to make an organization successful. Having to make choices about people and priorities is more challenging if your friends with the staff. It might make you feel better to have “friends” at work but you’re not being respectful to your team if you’re seeing your teammates through this lens. Creating friendship at your work, if you’re the leader, can skew the environment. “How come you’re not friends with me?”, others might ask. Smart people don’t want this in their companies. This thinking is a remnant of an unregulated market where trust was essential or incarceration might result. But we’re no longer in the unregulated market and establishing friendships at work when you’re the leader is often problematic..


In the book, you give an example of a company where no one wanted to take the CEO role. How should a nascent company decide this? Say there are a group of people, perhaps pre-existing friends, in the mix of being the core executive team. What traits stand out to you the most that would help nominate these C-level positions?

I’ve recently been watching the new Beatles documentary by Peter Jackson. It’s remarkable that with all of their fame and fortune, the Beatles struggled with power. In a vacuum, where no one is willing to assert their power, you’ll have endless meetings and no clear direction. Sometimes, the friends that got together don’t want to engage. One client I had two years ago just wanted to be in the greenhouses,> He did not want to lead and didn’t want anyone else to tell him what to do. He was a partner in the firm and was unwilling to take direction from anyone. While this played out the business floundered. This is not how you run a business. It may be comforting to get together with people you know and like but you have to articulate who has power in specific circumstances.

People who want to step up and take power need to do five things. (1) They need to create calm. Apple was phrenetic, but it was calm. We knew what we wanted to achieve and we had certainty that it would be fantastic! (2) They need to create structure? It’s important to create an organization that actually works. (3) They need to create a vision. Yes, be opportunistic when you need to be but create a vision and stick to your vision. Don’t chase shiny objects. Do the work, and do not take shortcuts. There are many bumps along the winding road, so hold to your vision even  in this fast-changing landscape. (4) You need to create trust. Power comes from trust. If you’re not trusted, your hold on power will be weak. Every day, by your actions you’re adding or subtracting from the trust people have in you. And (5), you need to take leadership actions. Figure out what are the three most important things you need to accomplish to move the company forward. Mobilize people towards that goal. Give them the power to help you achieve those goals. Allow them to make decisions that will advance your company. Don’t hold too tight to power, spread it.


What advice do you have for people new to obtaining power through leadership roles? How can they reign in the chaos of navigating the cannabis industry, and teach their staff while they also learn?

One of my first cannabis clients was a San Francisco company. They said “We can’t have a plan. The world is changing to fast for us to have a plan.” Even if the plan changes, it’s better to have a plan that you pivot.

The #1 thing for a new leader to remember is to never think that your title gives you power. Power comes from trust. Every day, you are gaining power or losing power. If you are deceitful or your ideas are not thought out, you will lose power. Power is like the sea… it’s always changing. Be sure to use your voice to advocate for power.

Another piece of advice is to not waste opportunities to communicate. Everything you say and all of your actions will be scrutinized by your team. Go to YouTube and watch how Steve Jobs communicated. He was clear about his message and urged people to follow him to glory. Too many people in cannabis fail to take communication seriously, and it’s essential.


Regarding the concept of growing your power people, what key traits in a person should a leader look for?

Look for people who have the creativity and drive to help you achieve your goals, people who are willing to take risks, and are innovative. Inexperienced leaders are happy to fill positions but this is a short-sighted approach. Fill positions with people that match your drive and passion for the business. Get people who are emblematic of the culture and who will want to stay in the business

Everyone should advocate for power and create organizations where people have the opportunity to advocate for power. If you are willing to take on power, you’re willing to take on responsibility. Many people think power is an evil. In the words of Professor Rosabeth Moss Kanter at Harvard University, “power is America’s last dirty word. It’s easier to talk about money, and much easier to talk about sex.” In reality, power wants to find a vessel. It’s either going to find you or someone else. The trick is to recognize how you can bring out the power that’s already inside you into your business and personal efforts.


Many people struggle with criticism of their work. How do you suggest a manager/leader respond to feedback from their team without appearing vulnerable?

In my last VP/HR job, I created a new performance management system called, the “dialogue process.” I thought that doing reviews the conventional way was very one-sided. Instead, we put a premium on meeting with direct reports at least once a month. During these meetings, we’d establish goals, give feedback, and receive feedback. We created a training for managers on “how to accept feedback.” Ultimately, the take home message was “shut up and take the feedback.” Listen to what people are telling you. You’ll learn so much. To be centered in your power, you need to hear the feedback of other people. Thank them for being brave enough to offer it. Give them the opportunity to speak up. If you do this, you are tapping into a source of power you wouldn’t otherwise have.


Regarding sharing the bad news with one’s team, some would say that it is good to insulate lower-level people on the org chart from detrimental company news. What are your thoughts on that?

It’s important to be honest with people at all times. There’s no value in hiding bad information. Bring it into the sunlight. As an executive or leader, you job is creating an environment where people will succeed, to protect the people that are on your team, and to push them. This requires actual, real-time engagement. Some CEOs or upper-level managers may act like they don’t have time to do this but imagine if you get your middle managers focused and committed to your vision. Imagine the leverage you have.


Regarding team meetings – how can a manager/leader ensure that the message they give is clear, concise, and firm, especially in an industry with lots of changes, regulations, and uncertainty?

Keep it simple and say your message repeatedly. Steve Jobs repeated the “four key points” of the Macintosh launch so many times that we knew it by heart. Even now, 30+ years later, I can remember three  out of the four points. No one’s going to follow an endlessly evolving or even worse, a conflicted message. Keep it simple, direct, and keep saying it. After you’ve taken these steps, ask your team to “come with me.” Will they do it? The teams of some people I’ve worked with wouldn’t follow them around the block! At the end of the day, people look to leaders to create a safe space where they can excel. The most important thing a leader can do is to feel powerful enough that they can have a conversation with their team about what expectations their staff has. When staff don’t do that, they don’t get what they want.


What challenges do you see in the cannabis industry that you’ve not seen elsewhere?

I’ve been on the planet for a long time and I’ve spent time in the internet space in the late 90s, early 2000s. It was crazy but not nearly as crazy with the banking restrictions, and federal legalization conversations in the cannabis industry. This is a particularly complex industry that continues to grow exponentially. There are so many uses for the plant, so much room for innovation. It’s a really exciting industry that needs big thinkers from product and organizational vantage points. There’s so much uncertainty, that people have a hard time committing to a particular path. The winners in all of this are going to be the people who understand the customer and the products they want to bring to market, and who acknowledge the chaos, but aren’t distracted by it.


If you were a genie, and could grant a would be cannabusiness leader three pieces of advice, what would they be?

1- If you’re a leader, don’t treat it frivolously. Be responsible for the people on your team. Work with them, listen to them, respect them.

2- Push yourself to be a better leader. There are no free power passes and don’t think that people are not watching.

3- Understand the market and the business that in. A lot of people are not going to be successful. In particular those that lack discipline and vision. Create calm, structure, vision, and trust, and you’ll be successful.

People never talk about how they feel about power. Some people think power is bad. Other people abuse it. We all have our biases regarding what power is but people need to stop fearing it and they need to start using it to inspire their teams and to create successful businesses.

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Steve Scheier

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