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Business & Profession Business, Profession

Why Scientists Should be CEOs

“The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result” – Albert Einstein. 

By the above definition, it might be considered that insanity is not placing a scientist at the highest-ranking office of your vertical cannabis company. Currently, many CEOs of cannabis startups were awarded the position (with varying degrees of nepotism) by early-stage investors and tasked primarily with updating the board of directors on the progress of the company. Given that a decent enterprise resource planning (ERP) system can do that job, it’s no surprise that this business strategy has proven to be uninspired, inappropriate, and paralyzing to new companies in a competitive industry.

Over and over, we’ve seen investors employ chief level officers who can only manage a copycat business model. With limited understanding of the technical aspects of the business, these executives hire visionary scientists to build, develop and run all aspects of the operation – but once the company is up and running, there’s a change of heart. The business is growing, costs must be cut, revenues increased – and who needs scientists for that? Soon the scientists are purged from the organization and the executives are running the show. 

Unfortunately for them, the instruments that support the industry aren’t exactly blenders and toasters. If the scientists working in analytical, extraction and R&D aren’t led by other scientists with more experience and vision, where will the company go? Probably in the same direction as every other cannabis company out there right now. I believe there must be more noble goals in the cannabis industry than making money and protecting the interest of your investors. Besides, are you really protecting your investment by doing the same thing as everyone else?

If a CEO has the job of managing a company’s resources, spearheading growth initiatives and driving the company’s success in a scientific endeavor, it seems desirable that they should have some laboratory experience under their belt. I hear the term “leverage” frequently used by non-scientist chief-level agents. If the head of a firm spends all day leveraging scientists to get the job done, then what exactly is the job they’re performing? 

Blind spots are defined as subjects in which one is uninformed, prejudiced, or unappreciative.  A specific type of blind spot that is prevalent among most executive leaders is the “theory of incongruency,” which holds that our expectations cloud our perception. The theory suggests that many ground-breaking ideas are ignored because leadership is unable to see the value of a new idea that doesn't fit within their current expectations and company culture (1). 

So why aren’t companies considering scientists to head up their operations? I believe the root of the issue is fear - on both sides of the equation. For a company investor, it may feel safer to hire someone known to you, with a similar background to your own, rather than a scientist –  often stereotyped as having a narrow focus and lacking business acumen. From the scientist’s perspective, some may fear rejection for high-level roles, or feel uncomfortable venturing outside the lab. I won’t deny we scientists have a love for the craft at the bench level. But this passion does not exclude the many other attributes, knowledge, and leadership we bring to the table. 

I have personally confronted many scientific dilemmas that required an extensive practice in critical thinking and analysis. As a project manager, I am trained to connect different elements of business while actively forming conclusions. Running a vertically integrated cannabis company is like aiming to hit a moving target. There are so many factors that directly and indirectly affect one another; company-wide collaboration is imperative. However, once there are several solutions on the table, it is the responsibility of the CEO to make the best, most-informed decision moving forward. How can the leader of an entire organization make qualified, data-driven decisions without having the foundational knowledge necessary? 

A scientist leading a cannabis company is not a gallant gesture, but an essential action to conceptualize, develop and grow a technical organization. Only a scientist will know how to qualify third-party laboratories and validate their analytical methods or identify safety issues in plant material that could cause a major downstream impact to production. Laboratory experience also adds value when it comes to choosing equipment and identifying relationships to be created and nurtured amongst your stakeholders. 

Scientists are not only vital to the processes being performed across the organization; they are the people who are capable, qualified and poised to lead a sustainable cannabis company. I task anyone embarking upon a new venture in the cannabis field to appoint a CEO with a scientific background, break out of the rut that cannabis startup companies are currently operating in, and see where that momentous decision takes your new venture. In my view, you certainly won’t be disappointed. 

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  1. JM Kerr, “Business blind spots”(2014). Available at: https://bit.ly/38Tdx41

About the Author

Alisia Ratliff

CEO, Victus Capital Ventures, Jacksonville, Florida, USA

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