Leading by Example for Fast-growth with Aaron Riley at CannaSafe

When you walk-the-walk and talk-the-talk, you are leading by example. The complexity of running a fast-growth company requires you to be a role-model at all times. Today’s guest is Aaron Riley, CEO at Cannasafe. Inc Magazine ranked Cannsafe #13 on the 2020 Inc 5000 list. Aaron shares the importance of leading by example. We look at all aspects of leadership in this interview. When you are leading by example, you show others how they should behave.

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Target Audience: Aaron Riley is the Chief Executive Officer at CannaSafe. CannaSafe is proud to be the first fully ISO accredited cannabis and hemp testing lab in the world, relentlessly championing the safe cannabis and hemp movement. With integrity at the heart of who we are, CannaSafe works earnestly to provide businesses with the highest-quality, most accurate testing data available, ensuring that the products they grow, manufacture, and distribute are safe and effective for medicinal or recreational use.

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Disclaimer: This transcript was created using YouTube’s translator tool and that may mean that some of the words, grammar, and typos come from a misinterpretation of the video.

Aaron Riley
Within our company, we have six core values, focus, accountability, communication, integrity, winning attitude, and leadership. And those are the things that we use internally, if you come to our facility, you know, we send emails at least once, I would say every other month, and it’s like, here’s our core values. Because, you know, as you participate in a growing industry, you need to make sure that everybody is aligned. And that’s kind of the starting point to where you’re at. And I’m sure that you’ve seen this with coaching, that’s the biggest probably opportunity is when you go into the team, and not everybody isn’t aligned. And the two things everyone needs to be aligned on, what is the mission? What are we all trying to do together? And then what’s the value system, kind of what’s our internal rules and accountability of one another to get that done.

Intro [0:48]
Welcome to Growth Think Tank. This is the one and only place where you will get insight from the founders and the CEOs, the fastest-growing privately held companies. I am the host. My name is Gene Hammett. I help leaders and their teams navigate the defining moments of their growth. Are you ready to grow?

Gene Hammett [1:05]
Leading by example, it’s not just a popular phrase. It’s actually the way companies grow fast. I talked to a lot of founder CEO through this podcast, to my clients, all the things that are necessary for you to grow, start with you leading by example, if you want your employees to communicate more effectively, well, of course, you’re going to lead by example, if you want them to be more courageous, more confident. And lead by example, if you want them to be more organized, lead by example, because no matter what you do, they will take little cues from you. Just like small children take cues from their parents, we don’t even realize it. But you must lead by example, My guest today is Aaron Riley, he’s the CEO of CannaSafe. They’re a company that does testing on cannabis products so that it’s safe for the consumers. So really appreciate the work that they’re doing out there to make sure it’s safe for all of the people that are that are using it. I’m not a user, by the way, but I do appreciate this. Aaron and I talked about leading by example, because his way he sees the company’s growth, the way he sees the way they’ve been able to get to number 13 on the Inc list, for example, is because he is very competitive. His other executive team members are very competitive. And they’ve instilled that across the company and hire people with values around competitiveness. So we talked about some of the details today we go into, you know, how does he really motivate employees? How does he really connect with them? And keep this going? Before we get to the interview? Let me just remind you that if you’re thinking about your own leadership, you’re thinking about how you’re leading by example, are you really trusting yourself enough? Make sure you go to genehammett.com/trycoaching you can actually set up a free coaching session with me if you qualify. If you have a company if you have you want to grow faster then you would qualify for this. But there’s a few questions on there that you’ll ask just go to genehammett.com/trycoaching. Now, here’s the interview with Aaron.

Gene Hammett [2:53]
How are you doing?

Aaron Riley [2:55]
Good. Gene, how are you doing?

Gene Hammett [2:56]
I’m excited to have you on the podcast here. I’ve already let our audience know a little bit about you. But I haven’t told them much about CannaSafe. So tell us what it is in the short version.

Aaron Riley [3:06]
Awesome. So you know, we’re actually working on our tagline right now. And we wanted people to ask the question, is it CannaSafe when they’re buying cannabis or CBD product? And what we do is we’re an analytical testing laboratory. And we’re responsible for providing data to cannabis producers and manufacturers that test for pesticides, heavy metals, potency, terpene content, so kind of twofold approach of one of making sure the dosing is accurate as well as is the safety components met for the requirements, whether you’re in California or on a national level?

Gene Hammett [3:43]
Well, I haven’t had too many different companies in here in the cannabis world, but you guys don’t actually make cannabis but you actually do the testing that makes it safe for consumers that are summing up?

Aaron Riley [3:54]
That’s a great way to put it. Yeah. So we don’t actually sell any product. We’re kind of like the regulatory agency, I asked, asked people all the time, like, would you buy a diamond without looking at a GI report? Or would you buy anything, you know, if you knew it had never been tested? And most people say, No, we do the same thing for cannabis. We make sure it’s safe. Make sure that you know what you’re getting.

Gene Hammett [4:13]
I love it. Well, you had an impressive run over the last few years. You would tell me the pathway was about 150,000 the first year but then this last year close to 20 million is is that about? Right? It was?

Aaron Riley [4:27]
Absolutely it’s like drinking out of a firehose. You know, it’s kind of ironic we had we had sales days touch our, you know, my first year’s revenue, and that’s pretty crazy for it to happen. And that sort of order.

Gene Hammett [4:42]
Well, I know that it takes a team behind you to grow this fast. And that’s one of the things we focus on is what kind of leadership and cultural principles are necessary for fast-growth companies. We can’t mimic the strategy and the industry that you’re in and the demand for that kind of stuff. But we can look at what companies are doing that actually To make this kind of growth and lay a strong foundation, if you were number 13, on the list, I’ve been asking people the same question, how did it feel to be ranked number 13th and have a, like a 12,000% growth rate in three years.

Aaron Riley [5:13]
It was amazing, you know, and as you said, it was, you know, no one person on any of the inkless is responsible for their own growth, it definitely took a team effort. But for us, it was, you know, it was an incredible journey, and actually didn’t realize how they calculate the number. So we were, you know, we were doing our math, we’re like, oh, we had 4,000% growth, that’s like, really good, you know, we’ll be top 100 or top 150. And then, you know, how they calculate as they use your, they use the beginning of your third years, that kind of the starting revenue, which was 150 k number, and we’re like, holy crap, we’re gonna be really high on the list. You know, so it was, it was kind of a surreal, you know, the thing to find out that we were going to be that high. And then, you know, receiving that we were 13 was just incredible, especially, especially in our industry, you know, that it’s growing so quickly, but to be recognized on that level with, not just within cannabis, but all of the fastest 5000 growing businesses in America.

Gene Hammett [6:11]
So, Aaron, I was able to do a little bit of research around the company, and I saw on your website, the mission that you have, and the values of the company. I know a lot of people kind of put those out there front and center. But what did what would we see inside of your company, as it relates to mission and values that we couldn’t see on your website or something like that?

Aaron Riley [6:30]
Got it. So, you know, our mission is to save cannabis and hemp for all. So we want to be able to, you know, we want to provide a testing service that has people know that they’re, they’re able to access safe products. within our company, we have our quote, we have six core values, focus, accountability, communication, integrity, winning attitude, and leadership. And those are the things that we use internally if you come to our facility, you know, we send emails at least once, I would say every other month, and it’s like, here are our core values. Because, you know, as you participate in a growing industry, you need to make sure that everybody is aligned. And that’s kind of the starting point to where you’re at. And I’m sure that you’ve seen this with coaching, that’s the biggest probably opportunity is when you go into the team, and not everybody is in line. And the two things everyone needs to be aligned on, what is the mission? What are we all trying to do together? And then what’s the value system? You know, kind of what’s our internal rules and accountability for one another to get that done?

Gene Hammett [7:31]
You’re absolutely right, I study a lot of companies, a lot of the interviews we’ve had on here, and founders, like yourself have over emphasized and putting effort into that mission, vision, and values so that everyone stays aligned. Speaking of alignment, you know, you wouldn’t have gotten to 115 employees, you wouldn’t have gotten to 12,000% growth rate without having some really effective strategies for alignment. So what comes to mind are those effective strategies?

Aaron Riley [8:00]
I think, you know, for me, and this is an evolution thing, especially when you’re starting out as a small organization, I mean, we, we look, when I, when I first started, we had less than five people, and you’re very hands-on. And as you grow, I mean, when you’re when you even when you have 50 people, you can know everybody by name, you can know what everybody’s doing. But the trick is to keep everybody alive as you grow. And the way that you do that the two ways that we like to do that are one is communication. So either in a group setting email setting, and then the second one is a strong onboarding process, so that when people join the company, you know, they might not have the same exposure to you, as you know, employee 10 had way more exposure to you than employee 100. But employee 100 knows what the mission is. They know what the vision is, and they know what your core values are, and then they hear from you on a monthly or bi-monthly basis. In terms of like, here’s a, here’s a general update, here’s what we’re doing. Here’s what we’re focusing on, here’s what the company’s number one objective is for this quarter.

Gene Hammett [9:02]
You said strong onboarding. I’m just kind of curious, what would that look like? Is it one day? Is it half a day? How do you How would you describe that onboarding process.

Aaron Riley [9:12]
So we have kind of two tracks, we have one track for executives, which is actually a week where we meet, they sit down one on one with every other executive. And you know, just, you know, there’s, there’s a, obviously the focus of alignment and core value, but a lot of it’s just interpersonal, like, these are people that are going to be working with, you have to start building that trust. Because ultimately, as your business grows, you can’t make every decision and you have to trust the people that you hire to make those decisions. So we have the executive track, which is actually over a week. And then for our other employees. It’s typically a one to a two-day process where they go through, they learn about the company, they do all their paperwork, they have the opportunity to read kind of our general slips or employee handbook. Learn about all the benefits that we offer. Really make sure that they understand their job description when they come in. You know, that’s one of the biggest things that just in my experience is like we didn’t always have everybody didn’t always have a job description, everything wasn’t always clear. And as you grow, you know, you’re moving away from people. And that’s one of the biggest contention points for moving frustrated is not knowing what their job is not known to do. And if you don’t have a clear onboarding process, they don’t, they can’t go look at their job description and say, Oh, this is my job. This is what I’m responsible for. It makes it more difficult for them to continue to stay engaged and aligned.

Commercial [10:37]
For a second, Aaron just said that onboarding is a one to two-day process for everyone that’s not an executive, are you thinking that your process might need to be improved? Well, here’s one thing I would share with you. That onboarding process is often overlooked as a chance to really create some connection with that person. This is the first time they’re coming into your organization. It’s a different experience than the interviews, but they know that they got to connect with others and build these interpersonal connections across the company. And that onboarding is a great place to do that. But also, you want to make sure you reinforce the values consistently in different ways. You want to share with them why these values are so important, what they are, what they need, share stories, this is very important for you if you want to have that kind of alignment, it is necessary for fast growth team when you have the right onboarding process. And in fact, in one of the interviews I did talk about designing the perfect day, how would it look if we reimagined that perfect onboarding process, and they actually created that and that’s what people have been experiencing in the company. Those are just some ideas to help you with your onboarding process. Now, back to the interview with Aaron.

Gene Hammett [11:43]
I want to go a little bit deeper here with you. One of the things that we found out about your company is your kind of you have a competitive drive, and you want to bring that into the culture, but you also have this concept of being prepared. How did those two things really help you win the day as a company?

Aaron Riley [12:01]
Awesome. Well, that well, that’s one of my favorite quotes from Warren Buffett, an idiot with a plan can be a genius without a plan. Um, you know, and I think for me, being prepared, I actually take it back to when I played sports, and I played college football, and you do so much to prepare for a game. I mean, the game is only 60 minutes, but you spend, you know, 10 plus hours of practicing and watching film and lifting weights for 60 minutes. And typically, you’re playing 60 plays. And then you know, for, you know, most players like like I played defensive line we’d nobody ever played all 60 plays, you pay 75% of snap. So you’re spending, you know, 10 plus hours for 45 plays, and those plays are three to six seconds each. The same thing in business, you know, you have to do, there’s so much work that has to be done before you’re actually being competitive before you can actually go and make a sale.

Aaron Riley [12:56]
You know, there are so many things that have to be done, what are you selling? How is how are you going to operationalize those things? What is the market going to look like? Because if you have an idea, today, you’re going to be selling to a different market to a different client in the future. And our business, I’ll give you an example of one of the things that really was that really helped us prepare and get way ahead of the edge. And this is part of this is probably the main reason why we had this significant amount of growth. When I first started, we would do the testing for these high times cannabis cups. This is 2016 2017. And what these are, these are events where consumers can come and they can buy products, and they can try stuff. And it’s like Park closet Music Festival. But for us, it’s testing that we have 400 products to test in three days. And when I first started, like, you know, 1010 samples in a day was a good day, you know, now we’re doing anywhere from 600 to 1000 tests a day.

Aaron Riley [13:51]
So just to give you an idea of, you know, kind of difference, but we would get these 400 samples, and they would want him back in three or four days. And at that time, it was considered borderline impossible, like how do you manage this mini sample, you’re used to getting 10 samples, now you have 400, and you have to get them back in the same amount of time that you were getting back 10 samples. So it really allowed us to think about what is the workflow look like, this is what the, you know, in 2016 17 were like, this is what every day is gonna look like we’re gonna be in California, it’s going to be a compliant market, if we want to be a leader, we have to be able to accommodate this much volume. So we designed our whole laboratory, you know, based on the thought that we were gonna have this many samples and we have to be able to, we have to be able to get them through production, get them on instruments and get the data out in an efficient manner. Um, and then in terms of being competitive, that’s just something you know, the athletic background is what we’re playing to win. I think anybody in business is playing to win, whether it’s, you know, it’s a sale or, you know, award or profit like you’re playing to win. And we’ve definitely taken that approach here. We want to be we want to continue to be market leaders, we want to continue to be hungry. We want to continue to set the bar To what the expectations of the industry are from our niche.

Gene Hammett [15:05]
Aaron, I appreciate you saying that I’m smiling a little bit on that plane too. When I wrote down in my journal, the one Thought for the Day was played a win. So it was meant to be our conversation.

Aaron Riley [15:16]
It was meant to be played when.

Gene Hammett [15:18]
I want to ask you something, you know, around leadership, because it’s one thing for you to bring your competitive nature from maybe your athletic or it’s probably if you’re like me, it’s very natural, just competitive. It could be cards, or it could be a monopoly, or it could be anything. But how do you instill that in others as a leader?

Aaron Riley [15:37]
So I like to lead by example. You know, I’m very fortunate, who was actually our, my best hire was actually featured by and it was Antonio Fraser whose easel he’s older than me, but he’s a former teammate of mine. And we actually used to go to each other in practice. So, you know, he’s, he’s my number two. So number one, number two at this company are former athletes who actually have to battle it out in practice, see, and we take some approach to business, but you know, we motivate people by, you know, really changing the expectations of outcomes, right? People, people don’t really know how to push themselves just on a normal basis. People don’t really understand what’s potential. And that’s one thing I think we do, we’re like, Hey, this is what we want to get done.

Aaron Riley [16:24]
Oh, that’s impossible. There’s like, no, it’s not if we all come together, and we do that we can deliver this, we can deliver for this time we can deliver for this price we can deliver on this project. So there’s really and it starts to people’s wheels start to turn when they get a little taste of that, right. When you get when you win a game or an event or whatever, you get a little taste of that. So another thing we’ve done is we have an employee of the month and we give away really cool swag, we have my backpack, you know, we have an award program for something that comes up with an innovative idea, they can win a vacation, so we get some. So we try to instill some, some competitiveness within our employees, that’s, that’s checked on a monthly basis, right? Everybody wants to be an employee of the month and get a parking spot or get a bag or, or win a prize. And we do it so that the outcome of that competition benefits the culture of the company, and our productivity.

Commercial [17:20]
One more second here, Aaron just said people don’t know how to push themselves, which is absolutely true. A lot of people that are inside working for your company, don’t know how to push themselves, they show up, they get the job done. And that’s great. But how do you challenge them to grow? Even more? How do you challenge them to grow through the uncomfortableness of it have more confidence and courage? Well, one skill behind that. And it’s one of the number one skills that you have to have as a leader is the ability to coach them. I’ve been a coach for 10 years. And it’s something I’ve learned over the years of doing this with founders and CEOs. But how do you coach your people? Well, you want to ask questions, you don’t want to respond with what you should do. You want to ask questions to understand, seek to understand first. It’s a really good mantra by Stephen Covey. So that’s my take on this to challenge people to the next level. Now back to Aaron.

Gene Hammett [18:09]
An employee of the month thing, do you is it based on certain things like around values or about work or around something else that you guys have determined is important?

Aaron Riley [18:20]
So it’s actually voted on by everyone’s peers. And as you said, it’s based on you know, kind of value alignment that this person go above and beyond for their teammates? And then did they have, you know, did they have a crazy production month, like, you know, did you know, just to give you an example, for finance, you know, maybe that maybe they put an extra 10 hours a weekend to get an audit done? Or maybe, you know, an individual set a record for prepping the most amount of samples. So those are, those are the type of things that we’d like to recognize.

Gene Hammett [18:51]
So, Aaron, you’re a young guy, I’m a little bit older than you. But you have a lot of maturities and your ability to lead. Where do you think that came from?

Aaron Riley [19:03]
It came from starting early. And I think that’s one of the things I’m very fortunate to have happened. And I always encourage people is like if you have an idea of you know, what you want to do, do it now don’t wait. You know this is, you know, I’m, I’m very fortunate. But the biggest reason that I’ve been able to develop this level of experience, and skill is basically because I started when I was 21-22. You know, I’m eight, nine years of experience. And, you know, as you mentioned, with your corporate America experience, you had to go once you had put in your time you were ready to go out and do it. And that that was that’s the differentiator is just the amount of time spent, I think it’s what 10,000 hours to become an expert at something and the faster you are, the younger you are when you get there, the greater and increased chance of success you’re going to have.

Gene Hammett [19:55]
I’m going to go back to something you said about lead by example. And I believe that too, and I see this across many things, a lot of CEOs and founders probably listening in today are busier than they want to be. And maybe that’s because they haven’t empowered their team, they have some inefficiencies in the process, what is your number one kind of hack to being less busy and actually being the leader that you want to be?

Aaron Riley [20:19]
That’s a good one. Because I struggled that myself just because, you know, I think just the competitiveness thing and wanting to win so bad, it’s hard to, you know, it’s hard to turn that off. But for me, I have to make time for things that I want to do. So I’ll go through, you know, go through different spurts where, like, I’ll have a personal focus, you know, like, right now, I actually have two personal focuses, one is health. So I’ve been working out very diligently, you know, waking up at five in the morning, several days a week, getting my butt kicked. And then the other one is personal development. So I’ve been, you know, reading having conversations mentor, you know, right now, my goal and, and one of the things too, just to hold myself accountable, and my team does this and another leadership trait is we put out what we’re working on, right? So you have the company stuff that you’re working on, but what are you working on to become a better person, um, you know, whether it’s like a family commitment, health, commitment, personal development commitment. So for me, mine is to read a book, you want at least one personal development book, every, every month, until the end of this year, and actually, it’s funny, I send your book shelf, their traction, is a really good book. I’m actually about halfway into that one and some great insights there.

Gene Hammett [21:38]
Yeah, I want to make sure this is clear to our readers, you have goals for individuals across this, and I don’t know how you share that. But you actually share your personal goals. Someone maybe wants to be a better father a better mother, or maybe spend more time with their aging parents, whatever. How do you track that? And how do you keep people accountable to those personal goals?

Aaron Riley [21:58]
So they have to share that if they write it down, they have to share it so that we all know what everyone’s working on. And there’s a bunch of different templates, you know, smart sheets, JIRA, any of these project management software’s, but that’s actually one of our buckets of, like, what are you gonna work on? Like, so? Hey, we have a meeting in December. And I’ve put that I was going to read at least one book, least one personal development book a month, and I’m gonna have to say, you know, green, yellow, red, and what was the outcome? What happened? Did I do this or not, so it holds everybody accountable? And the same goes for somebody who you know, wants to be a better, better father, or somebody wants to start working out, it’s like, you’re going to work out X amount of time, or you’re going to spend X amount of time you’re gonna drop your kid off to school every morning. Did you do it? Or did you not? And that’s part of the, that’s part of the critical component to that, too is, is what is the measurement, right? Because you can’t just you can say, all I’m gonna work on my health, like I ate a salad, but like, what is how are we going to measure whether you did what you said you’re going to do or not?

Gene Hammett [22:55]
Well, Aaron, thank you so much for sharing even the personal side of your leadership styles and culture. It’s really something I’m impressed with. Lead by example is a really important piece to this. So thanks for being here.

Aaron Riley [23:09]
Awesome. Thanks for having me.

Gene Hammett [23:11]
Another great interview in the books here loves being able to share these stories with you about what companies are doing, what leaders are doing. Aaron is a young leader, but he also has a maturity around him that really allows you to see how they were able to grow fast. Now the market they’ve been has been exploding, but how did they manage that kind of growth? Well, they had people that live by the values, they understand the mission, they were aligned, all of those things are necessary. If you want to keep the kind of growth that you want going to. When you think about leadership and you think about growth, think of Growth Think Tank, as always lead with courage. We’ll see you next time.

Disclaimer: This transcript was created using YouTube’s translator tool and that may mean that some of the words, grammar, and typos come from a misinterpretation of the video.


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