As part of my series about the “Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times,” I had the pleasure of interviewing John Flanders, President/CEO and founder of CBD Emporium. Flanders works across all aspects of the business, acting as Head of Operations and Investor Relations. He is responsible for corporate strategy, networking with investors and product vendors, overseeing financial operations, securing licensing deals and permits, developing staff training procedures, and managing all lower-level management staff.
Flanders has more than 25 years of experience in the cannabis industry, and in executive leadership, business management, and retail. He served as a former CEO and CTO of a public company and was CFO of a vertically integrated, multi-state cannabis company. Flanders also has a wealth of experience in international investment banking, venture capital, and finance executive leadership. For more than 20 years, he’s led dozens of early-stage, development-stage, and growth-stage companies.
Flanders also currently serves as the Chairman of Bellemont Capital Partners, a leading management services company in the Arizona cannabis market, and he sits on several advisory boards for a number of other companies, large and small.
He has long been passionate about helping others, engaging in several philanthropic endeavors, including Homeless Youth Connection, Project AWARE, and 1MISSION.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
Personally, I have been starting and developing businesses most of my life. Even when I was a kid, I always had some sort of project I was working on. In 2014, I saw how cannabis was making a real strong case to assist people with their health issues. The term medical marijuana was being used. When I was growing up, no one used it as medicine. And, if you grew it, you got in a lot of trouble. Now, in most states, it is legal. But medical marijuana is truly the starting point of a natural healing trend with Cannabis. And, THC is just one of the many cannabinoids that can help people. For the most part, up until the Hemp Farm Bill of 2018, it was not easy to access federally legal cannabis. Now, a couple of years after the farm bill, not only is the non-psychoactive cannabinoid CBD legal, it is socially acceptable and desirable to assist people with their issues. When I saw the opportunity that we could inform, educate, and guide people to better health and wellness, we jumped at the opportunity. Our goal is to show people there is more to cannabinoid science than just getting high. We are bringing people who would never walk into a dispensary and/or smoke shop and giving them a family friendly experience to find a solution.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
I remember saying early on that we would never need more than 1000 square-feet in our stores. I kind of chuckle when I think back on that statement. To have a properly inventoried store and create the high end, clean consumer experience, your store needs to have more room, better lighting, more shelf space, and more easily accessible and visible education. Unfortunately, a small 1000 square-foot store does not always portray that experience. Although, I still love the intimacy of a boutique store.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
There are many people who are truly responsible for the success we have achieved thus far. The first person that pops into my mind is my wife. While she is not part of the business day-to-day, she is part of the business night-to-night and weekend-to-weekend. She is incredibly supportive. But, if you would like to connect a direct line to the success of the company, that can be clearly drawn to our CBD Consultants. These are the front-line warriors that are passionate about helping people. They have been prepared and ready to help people during the worst pandemic of our lifetimes. They are at the stores all day long with one mission, help people to better health and wellness. I can think of no greater goal for our company and the good people staffing our stores are clearly the standout in our success.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When your company started, what was its vision, what was its purpose?
When we started the company, we had folks like my mom in mind. My mom is a fairly conservative, retired person who would never dream about going into a dispensary or smoke shop. Plus, like many consumers, they want a relationship in which to consult with someone knowledgeable regarding health and wellness. They do not buy these types of products from a shelf in a grocery store. And, if they did, without the education, they might not use it correctly and feel like they were cheated, while in reality, they just missed the opportunity to utilize cannabinoid science. Our purpose from day one has been to bring this science to the mass of people who would have never sought it through the traditional cannabis channels. The feedback we have received has been unwaveringly positive and on-point.
Thank you for all that. Let’s now turn to the main focus of our discussion. Can you share with our readers a story from your own experience about how you lead your team during uncertain or difficult times?
First off, a leader must be the calmest person in the room. Panicking, swearing, and throwing tantrums usually leads to a lot of fear, uncertainty, and doubt amongst your teammates. You must determine whether the situation at hand is an everyday issue or speedbump or whether it’s truly an obstacle. Human beings act completely different when dealing or talking about problems versus issues. The brain has a different response when you use those words. Your body reacts.
When shutdowns were happening and the world was uncertain where the pandemic was going to lead us, our company brought in all the strategic leaders of the company and developed an action plan which included: (1) a store operations plan, (2) a human resources plan, (3) a public relations and marketing communications plan, (4) an online presence plan, (5) a logistics and delivery plan, (6) a safety plan, and (7) a finance plan. We left the finance plan to deal with last. And, because of the correct implementation of the first 6 pieces of our plan, the financial issues were not as serious as we first thought. Every day during the implementation of our Covid-19 strategy we reminded each other that our goal was to come out of the pandemic stronger than we went into it. It was a great exercise for our company. And, I do believe as a team and as a company, we emerged stronger.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
I have never considered giving up. I’m not saying there isn’t a time to fold things when a plan does not meet expectation. However, we have not had to cross that bridge at CBD Emporium. My motivation is the people. All the incredible people at our company who want this to be bigger than themselves. To be part of something that went from ground floor to rocket ship. To remember the good old days as where they worked long and hard to build something very special. Every morning when I say hello to my team or talk on conference calls to my front-line store associates, I can see the dream of something bigger for them inside our great company. That drives me to work harder, work longer, and work for them … not myself. It would be the biggest shame of my life to give up on them.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
Be decisive. Make educated decisions. Get all the facts. Separate out the “red herrings” and make a plan that has everyone’s emotional support and buy-in. Make a decision and communicate that plan clearly in order to implement it to the best of everyone’s ability. Leaving things half-open only results in a haphazard way. Indecision is worse than a bad decision in the eyes of people who are looking at a leader to guide them to success. Weakness is born out of indecision.
When the future seems so uncertain, what is the best way to boost morale? What can a leader do to inspire, motivate and engage their team?
The future is always uncertain. There is no prescribed or guaranteed future result. Past performance is only an indicator on what future results may look like, not a guarantee. When you are with your team and you are looking to boost morale and/or performance, you can’t focus too much on the past. You have to look at what you did right and where you can improve. My goal when working with team members is to always be forward looking. Talk about expansion (a positive force in the universe), not contraction (a negative force in the universe). It is essential to be candid and open with team members. Otherwise, they do not feel like they are part of the team. Most importantly, you can’t ask anyone not to do something you would not do. One of my favorite things when I am walking into one of our stores is to talk about sales tactics, or pick up the office area, or help with bathroom cleaning. I love to “loop them in” on where the company is heading and how they will play a role in that future. I think the best motivation is by making people a part of all the positive, not just focusing on the mundane day-to-day.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
Be direct. Everyone knows when you are skirting issues or trying to soften the blow. One of my pastors at church once did a sermon and a part of that is a quote I love to think about when communicating:
“Candor without love is brutality” and “love without candor is hypocrisy.”
I think we as a company and as a community need more direct and honest conversation. And we certainly need more love. Our team members and customers are the future of this company. Our goal is always be a trusted source. Without direct and candid conversation, delivered with kindness and love, we will not be successful in our mission.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
Be flexible. Again, no one has a crystal ball. When you plan a path to trek down, you use your best judgement to adapt and overcome speed bumps and obstacles. You have to accept feedback from customers and teammates. You must make decisive turns in the path when you do come across obstacles and speedbumps. Most importantly, you surround yourself with great people who all have a vested interest in the successful outcome of the plan.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
I am an active Scuba diver. Scuba diving’s number one rule is to always keep breathing. Never hold your breath. I think that is a really solid principal for business as well. When you are breathing, you are alive. Oxygen is flowing to the brain and your body keeps working. You can take that literally as an individual or figuratively as a team. To be an effective team, we must have oxygen and we need to keep moving forward. Just keep breathing.
Can you share 3 or 4 of the most common mistakes you have seen other businesses make during difficult times? What should one keep in mind to avoid that?
- Tactics should stem from a strategy. Without a strategy, everyone may be paddling the canoe, however the ambiguous question becomes the direction. If your tactics do not follow a strategy, it is similar to an orchestra with all the instruments playing perfectly, but none of them playing the same song. No matter how well people are playing, if they are not on the same sheet music, it will sound terrible.
- Money busy versus busy busy. During stressful times, people can hide themselves in work. Usually, that type of work is not directly related to the company’s strategic direction. I call that busy busy. When people are working on the core strategy, they are advancing the business and that is money busy. You have to look at your team and ensure they are not on a treadmill. No matter how busy they are walking on a treadmill, they will never advance 5 feet.
- Put your employees first. Employees need to be happy. They need to feel like the company is advancing. Employees need to feel like they are advancing in the company. Employees need to feel like they are heard and being communicated with ongoing. Keep your employees happy, and the direct result will be happy customers.
Generating new business, increasing your profits, or at least maintaining your financial stability can be challenging during good times, even more so during turbulent times. Can you share some of the strategies you use to keep forging ahead and not lose growth traction during a difficult economy?
My favorite strategy is weekly conference calls. This is a place where a leader can speak to the whole team. Give them the updates on where the company is going and remind them where they need to be to ensure the company is heading there. In business, during difficult or good times, you are either be growing or dying. You can measure this growth (or lack thereof) in more than just numbers. However, the numbers never lie. Start with the numbers, pay attention to the data behind the numbers, and keep everyone’s focus on growing. There is a great business case study that reviewed the strategies of two cereal companies during the depression. One spent their time cutting expenses and making sure they survived. The other expanded their marketing and advertising as well as their product line. The good news is both hit their strategic goals. One retracted to a less than 20% market share and one dominates the cereal market to this day.
Here is the primary question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a business leader should do to lead effectively during uncertain and turbulent times? Please share a story or an example for each.
- Leaders are always the calmest people in the room. No one ever wants to see a madman freaking out when they are in a leader role. I see a lot of inspiration from leaders like Winston Churchill during difficult times.
- Leaders listen more than speak (seek first to understand, it is in our core values). I remember one time, I was called to a meeting with my direct report at a company. I was excited to be part of the executive team. The agenda of the meeting was to provide feedback on a current sales and marketing team. The schedule was for 45 minutes. The executive running the meeting lectured throughout the entire meeting. He never asked one question. He told us how everything we were doing was wrong and we were going to implement his changes. At the end of the meeting, we all had prepared ideas and suggestions based on our experience. None of them were heard. The sales and marketing campaign ended up closing even worse than it started. No one was surprised. Many of the good people who were in that meeting found jobs with other companies including some competitors. I often wondered if they took their good ideas with them.
- Leaders build teams not empires. I hate the term boss. It shows a totalitarian way of running a company. I remember one time, I was on Facebook looking at a friend’s profile page and he used the term “boss” for his title. I always wondered if his team felt subservient when they read that.
- Leaders conduct the orchestra, not play every instrument. You hire good people; you should let them do their job. If you are doing your team’s job, it shows a lack of respect and trust. It’s a great sign that you are either a poor leader or you hired the wrong people.
- Leaders live in the present, learn from the past, drive relentlessly to the future. One of my favorite quotes is from Tom Watson, past president of IBM. Watson says we (IBM in the 1950s) acted like the company we wanted to become. That is someone who is driving to the future relentlessly and with a vision. Watson and his team took where they were at that moment and applied it to their desired results in the future. This is a great path to walk down if you want to be successful.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
When I married my beautiful wife, we used the Prayer of Sir Francis Drake on a centerpiece for our guests. The first paragraph reads:
“Disturb us, Lord, when We are too well pleased with ourselves, When our dreams have come true Because we have dreamed too little, When we arrived safely Because we sailed too close to the shore.”
In business, you have to set your dreams large. You need to venture away from safety, and you have to sail into unchartered waters to lead your company to a place that no other company has discovered. At CBD Emporium, our team is courageously working towards not only becoming a large player in the industry but becoming a hallmark that few will be able to duplicate. We expect to own a piece of the market that other companies can only wish to hold. We have dreamed big and have sailed far from the shore. We are excited about the adventure and looking forward to an exciting future.