Change across America is happening, and groups like Lee Fisher’s CEOs for Cities keep the discussions growing

Lee Fisher readily acknowledges that the group he leads, CEOs for Cities, might better be called Change-makers for Cities and Regions.

By offering benchmarking research tools, twice-a-year conferences and 27 regional clusters, CEOs for Cities helps play an important role in economic development and innovation.

“Change is happening across America not from the top down, but from the bottom up,” says Fisher, president and CEO. “For example, Cleveland and Northeast Ohio, like other cities and regions around the country, are the beneficiaries of this dramatic move to cities and regions as the economic engines of our country.”

CEOs for Cities is an alliance of leaders from public, private, nonprofit and philanthropic sectors who get together to brainstorm and share the best ideas for economic success.

Collaboration brings success

While one may wonder how open the discussions are, considering the fact that cities are competing against each other when it comes to attracting business, Fisher insists there is no rivalry present in the discussions.

“Cities truly enjoy sharing their ideas and celebrating their successes,” he says. “We have not found a single instance where a city has been reluctant to share best practices and ideas, despite the fact that they sometimes compete with each other for certain businesses.

“In many ways, 21st century competition and 21st century collaboration are one and the same. You really have to compete to collaborate and collaborate to.”

That is the backbone of CEOs for Cities’ mission as a national network of cross sector leaders who research and share the smartest ideas for city and regional economic competitiveness and success, Fisher says.

“The premise for CEOs for Cities is that no city lacks talent. But virtually every city lacks a way to connect talent in the city across sectors and connect with talent and ideas with other cities,” he says.

Lee Fisher on the
rebirth of Cleveland

  • The Greater Cleveland Partnership, Team NEO, NorTech, the Fund for the Economic Future, the Cleveland Foundation and the George Gund Foundation deserve a lot of the credit along with Mayor Frank Jackson for the recent great success of the city and the region.
  • Every city that I visit is experiencing a renaissance and a rebirth, and they’re all on an upward trajectory. Some are moving faster than others, and Cleveland is among the fastest.
  • I have seen more collaboration and long-term strategic thinking in the last 10 years than in the previous 50 years in Cleveland and Northeast Ohio. I have yet to find a region that has the extent of collaboration among for-profit and nonprofit organizations that Northeast Ohio has.

Founded in 2001 by Mayor Richard M. Daley in Chicago and Paul Grogan, CEO of the Boston Foundation, the organization recently relocated its headquarters to Cleveland. Fisher was selected as president and CEO in May 2011. His experience in Ohio public offices and as president and CEO of the Centers for Families and Children in Cleveland has given him a solid foundation to further the group’s mission.

Fisher says the organization’s founders felt there were at least four leaders, or CEOs, who were essential to be at the table in order to promote success for cities and regions. The first was the mayor of the city or the region, for example, the mayor or the county executive. The second was a business leader or the leading business organization such as the business chamber of commerce.

The third was the leader of the academic community, usually a college or university president. The fourth was the leader of a major family foundation.

“Over the years, it has evolved into an organization that includes many CEOs, but is much more,” Fisher says. “You don’t have to have CEO in your title to be a member.”

Winds of change

Fisher says while financial incentives are important, the story is more about making a region a great place to live, work, learn and play and creating a workforce and talent pipeline for the region’s short-term and long-term needs.

The federal government is becoming increasingly dysfunctional and partisan, and more people are realizing that the most functional and effective level of government is at the city and regional levels, he says.

To encourage discussion of ideas for change and improvement, CEOs for Cities has 27 clusters. These are groups in cities across the county that join as a team and network to share successes, challenges and the lessons they have learned. Each cluster has about 15 members. There are also some individual members who are not associated with clusters.

Clusters operate differently in each city. In some cities, the clusters meet regularly to share ideas and hear guest speakers. Cities like Cleveland have a loosely organized cluster; members receive the organization’s newsletter, participate in webinars and attend conferences but don’t meet regularly.

Fisher says when members get together, it makes for some unique conversations.

“It is fair to say we are the most diverse national urban organization in the country in terms of both sector and age. When you come to one of our conferences or workshops, it looks a lot different from a number of national urban organizations simply because of the diversity across sectors and across generations,” he says.

“The more perspectives that you can bring to the table about what makes a city in a region economically successful, the better. We are known for being the most diverse national urban organization in the country in that respect.”

How to reach: CEOs for Cities, (216) 687-4704 or