Despite the industry’s rapid growth, many cannabis companies are still in startup mode, and recruiting for executive teams is a unique challenge with cultures, roles and systems continuing to be defined.
In November 2017, the husband-and-wife duo of Bryan and Jessica Passman aimed to fill a need in the market by launching a retained executive search and consulting firm. The result was Hunter + Esquire — a name representing CEO Bryan Passman’s experience as a classically trained headhunter, and chief operating officer Jessica Passman’s background as a lawyer.
The company’s founders spoke with Marijuana Venture about their customized approach to serving clients’ needs and how they’ve seen the recruitment process evolve in the cannabis space.
An Open Playing Field
It’s often been said that cannabis is a huge opportunity for female entrepreneurs and executives compared to other, more established industries. However, there’s a fair amount of data that shows it’s not that much different than the “good old boys club” of corporate America when it comes to leadership positions and fundraising.
As a company focused on executive recruitment within the cannabis space, Hunter + Esquire has a unique vantage point from which to view the hiring for leadership positions. Jessica Passman, the company’s chief operating officer, says clients frequently request Hunter + Esquire to find women for executive roles. It’s one of the most common requirements for any search.
“The industry is a fairly open field for everyone, as it is a startup industry,” she says. “It is a huge industry with numerous high-powered players and lots of opportunity.”
CEO Bryan Passman says Hunter + Esquire is a strong supporter of bringing more women, as well as minorities and veterans, into the industry, and he sees companies increasingly making consistent, concerted efforts to hire more women.
While the cannabis industry does have a higher percentage of women overall in leadership roles compared to other industries, there are still more men than women in executive roles or serving on boards of directors.
But, according to Passman, here are some lesser-known facts on the matter:
– Hunter + Esquire receives a significantly higher percentage of responses from men over women.
– It receives more male applicants than women for every role posted, regardless of the level, location, discipline or compensation.
– Male candidates are significantly more enthusiastic on average than their female counterparts about entry into the industry in executive roles, despite the associated risks and the lesser cash compensation than in other, established industries.
– Despite women-focused efforts, Hunter + Esquire still ends up placing a lower percentage of women because of their higher levels of risk-aversion and lesser desire to take equity over cash compensation for these opportunities.
“These are just some of the realities we face on the front lines of trying to do our part to correct the disparity,” Passman says. “It is frustrating for us as well as for our clients. We can all agree that this disparity needs to be addressed, but the big question is: How do we properly discuss and address the issue?”
— Garrett Rudolph
Marijuana Venture: Why were you first interested in getting into cannabis?
Jessica Passman: Bryan and I believed in the benefits of the cannabis plant well before the legalization movement. Once legalization was being considered in Florida, we aligned with some colleagues who were positioned well to win a vertically integrated license. However, at that time (back in 2014), legalization didn’t pass. In 2016, it was on the ballot again and this time medical-use legalization passed.
We were in very different places in both of our careers, but also in the right place in terms of timing to seize the opportunity. I was in the process of moving on from an entrepreneurial venture and selling my ownership in a professional networking organization for women, which I helped build from the ground up. Bryan was working in executive search focusing on the CPG food and adult beverage industries after working in the medical device and pharmaceutical industries for 15 years. We were both ready for a new entrepreneurial venture and agreed it was time for us to launch into something new together. We knew that cannabis companies needed the type of professional services (talent acquisition and advisory) we could provide.
Long story short, we launched our executive services under The GIGG and rebranded as Hunter + Esquire. We kept The GIGG to provide staffing, non-executive recruitment, team building and recruitment process outsourcing (RPO) services.
MV: How has the recruiting process for cannabis executives evolved over the past few years?
Bryan Passman: There has been an uptick in the concerted effort by companies to hire more pedigreed candidates. That means implementing a standardized hiring process for all candidates (including family and friends’ referrals for opportunities) and having a clear understanding of the roles to be filled. Companies are also implementing more of a diverse methodology in order to be better positioned for public offerings and for more effective growth by having a more professional and diverse workforce.
MV: What makes the combination of a headhunter and a lawyer a good dynamic for your company?
JP: As a lawyer, and by nature, I am a problem-solver and solutions finder. I am drawn to the puzzle of finding the right person for the opportunity and can analyze hundreds of profiles at a microlevel in a short amount of time. Our ways of thinking and doing things are very different but complementary. Also, as a boutique firm, all our engagements are customized. Having an in-house attorney truly allows us the needed flexibility to craft custom language specific to our clients.
Due to the legal climate in which the cannabis industry operates, having an attorney further elevates our compliance mindset, which benefits our clients when evaluating talent. We have the capability to holistically assess talent for both company and industry fit. It is a two-part analysis, both being of equal importance.
MV: The last year or so has been particularly volatile with numerous top-level cannabis executives being removed from their positions and dozens of companies going through layoffs and struggling to reach financial projections. How does this impact your business?
BP: The impact is minimal from the talent supply perspective. I know of some very talented professionals who entered the cannabis space within the past couple of years from established and mainstream industries and have decided to return to something more mainstream until the cannabis economy stabilizes a bit. However, there is most definitely no shortage whatsoever for talent seeking to join the movement. The level of enthusiasm and belief for what the future holds and the power of the plant is as strong as ever.
The right-sizing that the industry is going through is to our benefit as it is inspiring cannabis businesses to become more thoughtful about their executive hiring approaches (such as creating accurate role descriptions, bringing the right talent to the right role and developing appropriate compensation packages, training, onboarding and retentions programs, etc.). It has also opened the door for consulting services for companies that built up their executive team too quickly then become too top-heavy with full-time executives. Consultants can provide expert assistance until the company can hire full-time roles.
MV: What type of individuals are you looking for when looking at a particular opening? Are there specific traits? Specific experience? Something else?
BP: Yes, we look for candidates with the deepest possible level of leadership depth and experience within the respective discipline that we are recruiting for, so they only need to learn about the cannabis industry nuances with respect to the role.
We also look for people that meet certain soft skills, such as having passion for the plant, grit, an entrepreneurial spirit, extreme adaptability and a self-starter mindset. Ideally, some of the best candidates have worked in both large pedigree company environments as well as small, dysfunctional, rapid-growth environments. It’s also great when people have worked across various industries, demonstrating their ability to adapt and thrive versus working in one industry their entire career.
MV: And on the flip side, what type of company fits the bill for your ideal client?
BP: Our ideal client is a highly aspirational cannabis business that is well-funded and looking to invest in the most professionalized talent and forms of human capital solutions. The organization has a mission, vision and long-term strategy to be a viable player in the industry versus just a goal to hurry up and exit as soon as possible. Culture is king. They either have a defined culture or are seeking to hire someone to define their culture.
MV: How has the recent CBD boom and the legalization of hemp through the 2018 Farm Bill impacted Hunter + Esquire?
BP: We now have more hemp and CBD-only clients, whereas most of our clients prior to that Farm Bill were more THC-centric. Both cannabis and CBD-only companies (or those with a mix of both) need the right executive leadership and hiring practices in place if they want to stay viable in the industry.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.