Cleveland’s Path to Extraordinary Requires Alignment and Commitment

by | Jul 29, 2018

By Brad Whitehead, Fund for Our Economic Future, guest columnist for


CLEVELAND — Management guru Peter Drucker is attributed with famously saying that “culture eats strategy for breakfast.” Here in Greater Cleveland, our civic culture seems to be eating our breakfast, lunch and dinner.


Recent weeks have witnessed scores of speeches, articles, op-eds, and coffee house conversations about the health of Greater Cleveland’s economy and what needs to be done next. At this point, only hard-core deniers suggest we are performing well. A growing consensus exists that our community and its leaders must step up their economic game. Less clear is the prescription.


Performance is a function of both strategy and culture. Civic commentary to date has tended to conflate and sometimes confuse the two. A June 21 Plain Dealer/ editorial gave voice to what many in the community have been saying: We lack a commonly shared strategy and need a summit (or summits) to brainstorm ideas to reverse our fortunes.


In fact, a number of plans already exist at the individual organization level, and many of them are very good. For instance, the Greater Cleveland Partnership has formulated the Forward CLE program, JumpStart is promoting a FUEL entrepreneurship campaign, and Cuyahoga County has issued an economic development strategy.


Within and beyond these plans, many promising initiatives are in flight, and many more exciting initiatives are in the planning stages, including strategies for digital manufacturing, the Internet of Things, blockchain, sector workforce partnerships, and worker mobility, to say nothing of place-based job hub strategies along the Opportunity Corridor, the Health-Tech Corridor, and West 25th Street.


Of course, we can always use more and better ideas, but greater civic alignment and commitment to implementation at scale is what is needed most. Perhaps what we really have is a cultural problem masquerading as a strategy question.


The cultural conundrum shows up in two ways: poor collaboration among some of our most prominent institutions and insufficient inclusion of diverse voices.


As civic leaders, we spend way too much time protecting turf and throwing elbows. In his City Club speech on June 8, Jon Pinney aptly characterized this collective behavior as the Greater Cleveland ego-system (versus ecosystem).


The consequence is that even obvious actions struggle to take root. One example is in business expansion, where the identification of promising companies and the application of our region’s many assets to support their growth has taken years instead of months to implement. The problem stems from concerns around credit, decision-making authority, and funding. The result is vibrant companies choosing to expand elsewhere.


Northeast Ohio needs some civic therapy and needs it soon.


Lest anyone think we know how to point a finger but not look in the mirror, the Fund for Our Economic Future and philanthropy in general have not been immune to the rancor. At times, unproductive dramas have put grantees in difficult positions and slowed community progress.


I’m here to say we have done an honest reckoning and are prepared to engage differently.


Beyond the lack of alignment, our civic culture must also embrace more and different voices. Recent Plain Dealer/ op-eds from Jan Roller and Akram Boutros have been spot on in their call for a new mindset and a new generation of leaders. Simply put, more diverse voices translate into a healthier economy.


Of course, we must not ignore strategy while tending to our cultural issues. Our Fund’s recently released “The Two Tomorrows” report aims to get at both. While reflecting many institution-specific strategies and initiatives already under way, “The Two Tomorrows” sets forth 10 priorities in job creation, job preparation and job access around which the region can align to improve the fundamentals of our performance. Importantly, “The Two Tomorrows” suggests new metrics for setting goals and tracking performance that correspond with what really matters in an economy.


Beyond these unifying strategic priorities, “The Two Tomorrows” also calls out our cultural issues, specifically, the need to work more collaboratively and inclusively. Most notably, it puts the issue of systemic racial exclusion in the economy squarely on the table. We’re going in the wrong direction on issues of race and it is in our collective interest to do something about it.


We do not purport that “The Two Tomorrows” is the definitive way ahead. But it can be a shared starting point for a broader community discussion that saves us all months of work and analysis paralysis. Then, hopefully, we can work collaboratively, inclusively and at scale on critical priorities our community collectively believes will make a difference.


We will be outlining the thinking behind “The Two Tomorrows” at free City Club briefings on Aug. 24 and Sept. 7, both at 11 a.m. Please join us. We want to understand what we missed and how we can all work together to realize Greater Cleveland’s full potential.


In “The Two Tomorrows,” we note that being average is a choice. So is being extraordinary. We’re prepared to join with others on the path of choosing extraordinary.


Brad Whitehead is president of the Fund for Our Economic Future, an alliance of funders working to advance economic growth and equitable access to opportunity in Northeast Ohio.