On April 21, Grown In convened Midwest-based cannabis industry leaders for a webinar focused on obtaining and retaining better employees. 

“You have to be quick on the draw, resilient and able to set up a great talent acquisition strategy,” explained Amy Dordek Dolinsky of Lucas James Talent Partners. 

Training retail workers to personalize communications with customers not accustomed to purchasing pot is a high priority, said Gabe Mendoza, executive vice president of retail operations at Mission Dispensaries. 

“We are looking for people who want to ask customers a lot of questions so they can benefit them,” said Mendoza, who has opened up twelve locations for the retail division of Phoenix-based multistate 4Front Ventures, including two dispensaries in Illinois and one provisioning center in Michigan. 

“You need to understand how to show empathy and understanding for the individual who is in front of you, as well as for the next 500 customers you will see that day.”

Chris Jackson, an owner of multiple Sticky provisioning centers in Michigan, says customer-facing employees, “have to formulate a mindset,” to connect in the moment while also being able to serve “the next 600” people who come through the door. 

A board director of the National Cannabis Industry Association who leads government relations for Sticky, Jackson said he is encouraged by proposed legislation in Michigan that would require and standardize training for industry professionals in the state.   

“The closer we get to continuous education and certification the better we will be,” he said. 

While established trades have defined competencies for various job functions, the cannabis industry for a myriad of reasons “is not there yet”, says Dordek Dolinsky.

A federally illegal product that is subject to a wide range of state regulations, cannabis is also a multi-billion industry where rules and new norms are written on the fly. Further, startup businesses that own lucrative licenses to sell, grow, and manufacture the plant often experience rapid growth.

The functions of founders and early employees, as is typical in startups, change as new employees arrive. 

“When you are in a small company you often wear five hats,” says Dordek Dolinsky, previously chief revenue officer at Chicago-based multistate operator Justice Grown. “As companies get bigger the roles get more specialized.” 

While the ability for individuals at all levels of an organization to multitask remains critical, says Jackson, roles and responsibilities need to be clearly defined.   

“A lot of people we hire have to be intre-preneurs,” he said. “They have to own what they are doing.”

Mendoza says Mission pays special attention to employees who come in at the entry level and want to expand their skill-sets. 

“If somebody wants to work at a dispensary all of their life, I’ll support that person,” he said. “If you want to do something else in the organization, just be honest and we will identify opportunities. Maybe it’s a class on how to run excel formats. Maybe it’s a photography course.”

Establishing the right culture for employees embracing an industry that for generations was associated with countercultures is critical.

“We haven’t quite tilted to a corporate culture,” Jackson said. 

Mendoza said he encourages “continuous communication” between general managers and their employees in the form of monthly 1:1 meetings. 

“You can schedule it out the entire year so when meetings occur they are way more open,” he said. 

Responding to audience questions about establishing compensation structures across their organizations, the panelists emphasized consistency, especially as operations grow.

“When you have one or two stores you can be more flexible,” said Jackson, “The hard part is understanding how to be consistent when you go to six stores.”

Sticky institutes quarterly performance reviews where managers can, “say, ‘Hey we noticed you did this and deserve a bump.’”

While Mission in its early days gave pay raises on an “intermittent” basis, Mendoza said performance reviews are now done on an annual basis. Employees at individual stores that experience “enormous success” may be in line for 6-month reviews, “that could trigger a potential opportunity for individuals to get paid more.”

Whatever compensation policy is in place, advises Dordek Dolinsky, it should all be transparent.

“People talk so make sure you have pay equity across all locations,” she said.  

The webinar was moderated by Grown In head of learning Eric Davis. Read more of our coverage on Careers in Cannabis, including profiles on higher education in Illinois and a social equity accelerator for Michigan cannabis entrepreneurs. 

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Brad Spirrison is a journalist, serial entrepreneur and media ecologist. He lives in Chicago with his son. Interests include music, meditation and Miles Davis.