Asa part of our series called ‘Five Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became A CEO’ we had the pleasure of interviewing IM Cannabis CEO, Oren Shuster.
One of Israel’s most prominent experts in medical cannabis, Oren Shuster brings more than two decades of proven entrepreneurial experience in founding and growing companies in the med-tech and technology/software industries to his work with IM Cannabis (NASDAQ: IMCC). Prior to IMC, Oren co-founded E-wave Online, with a vision to create an international technology company that provides software solutions for enterprises in digital, IT, HR, and medical technologies. In addition to a successful entrepreneurial track record, Oren also has held executive positions at companies within the telecom and digital media industries.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
I’m an entrepreneur. I started my first software company 22 years ago and focused mostly on healthcare and healthcare IT but, in 2010, someone approached me about growing medical cannabis and joining IMC, and this is where it all began. Through my previous healthcare and business background, I was already aware of medical cannabis’ huge potential to help people, so I decided to make the leap and join the industry.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
One of my former employees’ daughters had a very rare and serious form of cancer when she was just 3 years old. The cancer had led to a tumor in her head, and it was bad enough that she ended up losing one of her eyes. The doctors were not confident that she was going to make it much longer.
They approached me and started using one of IMC’s strains to treat her conditions. By the next doctor visit, they saw no cancer growth and, in subsequent visits, the tumor actually began to shrink. It was shocking.
I just saw her a few months ago and, today, she’s all grown up and quite healthy. Since the start of her treatment, she’s completed an MRI scan approximately every three months and, with each checkup, my former employee would inform me of the incredible progress that she was making.
It was an absolute privilege to be in a situation like that, and I’m thankful that I was in a position to help. That’s really the essence of why we do this business.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
The funniest stories relate to cross-cultural perceptions and differences. I remember when I first started doing international business, on one of my first business trips, we were invited to attend an event with an “informal attire” dress code. Being Israeli, informal for us means jeans and t-shirts. I was so embarrassed to see all the other participants in suits and ties!
Since then, I make a point of dressing in suits for all events. Over the years, the world has changed, and formality has become less important, but I still am the most overdressed person in the room. It is just a small example of how cross-cultural sensitivity and savvy are important in doing global business. I have since become extremely sensitive to nuances in all my dealings to correctly portray the respect that I have for the people whom I deal with.
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 about that?
That’s very simple — it’s my wife. I didn’t come from a traditional background, as I didn’t go to school, and I didn’t grow up in a great neighborhood. My wife is the biggest reason that I started to study after the army, and I started everything from scratch. She was the inspiration behind all my hard work.
As you know, the United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality and inclusion. This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have a diverse executive team?
Today, the world is a big global village. Everything is connected, and we can see now — especially during the COVID-19 pandemic when everyone started to work through Zoom and other media — that it is much easier to work with people from different cultures and locations. It is inevitable now that you’re going to be working on behalf of a global consumer base, and when you’re working in that fashion, you need to have the diversity within the organization to best understand and adjust to other cultures and backgrounds.
More diversity equals a stronger company with stronger values and better cultural understanding. This is especially true when you work in different countries. You need diversification, because you need the expertise internally to adapt to that country’s values and customs.
IM Cannabis has three bases: Canada, Israel, and Germany. The mentality is very different in each of them, but we’re still working together as one team, and we see and understand the differences between us. You can see it almost on a daily basis. Without a diverse team, we couldn’t work with Canada in the way that we do now. I’m very proud of our ability to bridge the gap across countries in mentality and approach.
As a business leader, can you please share a few steps we must take to truly create an inclusive, representative, and equitable society? Kindly share a story or example for each.
A prime example of inclusivity is through a program that we have at our growing facility. IMC has partnered with an institute that works with the mentally challenged in various capacities to give them jobs on our farm, and we have seen a huge change in the farm since they started to work there. People are helping each other, and it has become much more than just business.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. Most of our readers — in fact, most people — think they have a pretty good idea of what a CEO or executive does. But in just a few words can you explain what an executive does that is different from the responsibilities of the other leaders?
At the end of the day, you have to take responsibility for all the top-level decisions. The harsh reality behind the glamour of the title is that, as a CEO, you can’t expect that all people will love you at all times. No one can love you when you have to be tough. You’re going to make the difficult decisions, even the ones that you don’t want to make, and there’s no one else to pass blame to.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive. Can you explain what you mean?
The biggest myth that needs to be dispelled about being an executive is that the job is all fancy meals and photo ops. My job is about making the tough decisions that can make or break opportunities for the company. I believe that once you are comfortable making a decision in the face of that uncertainty, you’re on track to be a great CEO.
What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?
We spoke earlier about responsibility, and it’s something that never leaves you. When you’re a CEO, the work never stops. If I’m awake at 2 a.m., it’s because I’m thinking about work. When you’re a CEO, everything is surrounding your work, and that’s a difficult thing to get your head around. Not much is left for the other parts of your life — hobbies and interests, for example — and you have to be ready to accept that.
Do you think everyone is cut out to be an executive? In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful executive and what type of person should avoid aspiring to be an executive? Can you explain what you mean?
You have to be able to take on the responsibility all the time. Many times, tough decisions will need to be made even without much background or information. There is a lot of pressure, as well, to perform well for the company and its shareholders. If that makes someone uncomfortable, he or she may not be cut out for the role.
In addition, you have to be a good manager, and I feel that’s really about defining strategy and sticking to it. Even when it gets tough, you have to be a strong believer in the direction that you are taking the company. If you zig-zag with policy, you’ll lose the company. Even in the midst of a crisis, you have to stick to your policies and decisions.
What advice would you give to other business leaders to help create a fantastic work culture? Can you share a story or an example?
Employees are the main assets of any company. If your employees aren’t happy, then you won’t be happy as the CEO. Money’s important, sure, but it’s not the most important thing. People who are creating and making something and can see the results of their work in their hands in front of them are going to take ownership in what they are doing.
Once employees take ownership of their work, it can go from a chore to something that they truly enjoy and take pride in. When your employees feel a sense of pride in their company, they are going to give you the best possible output, and your company is going to benefit. It’s a balancing act as a manager or CEO to allow independence while also managing responsibility and making sure that things get done properly.
It is also important to open up feedback channels between management and employees. When those channels of communication are open and flowing, employees receive the positive feedback that they need to know their work is appreciated. You can also receive direct feedback about what needs to happen or what needs to change to have a positive work environment.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
I strongly believe that IM Cannabis is contributing to the communities in which we operate through our commitment to the patients who are using our products. Our products can make a serious and significant difference for people who are living with life-altering diseases and serious health conditions. We hope that we can be a part of the solution that can help to support their needs.
Fantastic. Here is the primary question of our interview. What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
- When I started out, I thought that I needed to be this strict, heavy-handed executive. The more experience that I gained, though, the more that I’ve come to realize this is not anyone’s ideal management style. No one likes working with this kind of leader, and I quickly came to understand why this was not the best approach. A milder approach — one that leaves open the path for dialogue and discussion with employees and partners — is almost always going to have better outcomes for your company. Communication is the best way to have a good relationship with your employees, and it took me some time to understand that and truly embody it in my work and personality.
- The loneliness is something that I didn’t realize was going to be such a large part of my role. Sometimes, you’re alone at the top, and it can become easy to forget what made you take the position in the first place.
- Alongside number two is the fact that you end up alone in many of your meetings and travel obligations. Often, people at conferences and other company speaking opportunities or meetings need to hear directly from the CEO. This comes with great consequence and oftentimes leaves you taking very important meetings and other functions by yourself.
- As I’ve grown into my role, I have definitely become more aware and sensitive to the unique needs of all stakeholders who are involved with my company — investors, the global medical and cannabis communities, patients, partners, consumers and so on. Each stakeholder group requires a different approach, and communication is the key to achieving success in this way.
- It is important to remember the positive and negative effects that your actions as CEO can have on other people. The older that I become, the milder that I am in my approach with my employees and other associates. Oftentimes, I feel like novice management executives come in with a heavy hand, trying to set the record straight or prove their mightiness as a manager. I have found in my experience that those are the managers who don’t stick around for very long. If you are understanding and compassionate with your company, I find that your employees are going to be a lot more accommodating for what you need from them to succeed.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
I would love to inspire more people to understand the healing nature of plant-based medicines. Cannabis in particular continues to be underexplored due to its stigma as being a recreation-only drug, and people can overlook its vast medicinal properties. Medical cannabis strains and oils can have great potential and positive outcomes for patients who are suffering from life-threatening conditions. I would like more people to recognize the serious good that cannabis can do in our communities around the world.
We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them
Elon Musk — He is a great entrepreneur who is changing the world with what he is doing, and I admire that.