The parents were devastated. They were told their child’s cancer was well advanced and that they should place the youngster in hospice. When Umberto Fedeli, a member of the Cleveland Clinic Foundation’s board of directors, heard about the situation he wasn’t about to ignore it.
“We were able to make some calls and introductions, and get the help the child needed,” says Fedeli, president and chief executive officer of The Fedeli Group, one of the most successful risk management and insurance firms in the state. “Years later, I was invited by the parents to celebrate that child’s wedding and graduation from medical school. I didn’t do so much. Just a couple calls. It was Cleveland Clinic and its doctors. But, I get the most fulfillment when I can be a small part of helping someone meet a challenge.”
Fedeli is still one of Cleveland’s most able influencers. Like other influencers in Northeast Ohio, Fedeli’s character looms large over the business, cultural, nonprofit and government landscapes in this town. That influence affects billions of private and public dollars, personal lives and the region’s future.
Of course, there are influencers, and then there are influencers. Many in Cleveland are reluctant to speak on record about what influence can really do and cannot do in this town, or any town for that matter. There are the very public, positive and legit influences that create parks, get people jobs, seal residential and commercial development deals, build bridges and bring high-profile names to town.
Boards and committees in Cleveland tend to overflow with individuals representing law and finance. That’s not surprising. Beth Mooney, retired chairman and CEO of KeyCorp, suggests those professions are service-oriented and also may allow the time and opportunity for employees to become involved.
But generally, Mooney, who is board chair for Cleveland Clinic, says she believes “Cleveland is not a parochial town,” and most power boards here will consider anyone who is willing to put in the time and effort to earn a place. Although she easily could have a seat at any board table in town, Mooney chose Cleveland Clinic because she says it’s an anchor institution for the city and region and is core to health care not only locally, but also on a national and global scale.
“With the combined strength of health care from Cleveland Clinic, University Hospitals and MetroHealth, we are unlike any other community I can think of,” says Mooney, adding that her corporate business skills transferred well to the 100-year-old, nonprofit Cleveland Clinic, “a multibillion-dollar institution serving patients around the world.”
David Gilbert is president and CEO of Destination Cleveland and president and CEO of The Greater Cleveland Sports Commission. Gilbert says he believes being an influencer and particularly a board member in Cleveland is “now less about money and position” than it is about “energy and becoming a leader in what you believe in.
“There is more to putting a board together than with just people of power,” says Gilbert, a board member of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, Greater Cleveland Film Commission and International Children’s Games, based in Switzerland. “Some boards are that way, and some are that way out of necessity. But, you need to seek out people with mutual self-interests to influence anyone. And, it’s not always about who wins or who loses. There may be times when bulldozing can work. But I believe in most of the time devising a plan that has elements of win for everyone.
“It also means you aren’t keeping score. Some organizations and people may get more out of a plan than others. But, the next time around it may be different,” adds Gilbert.
Indeed, local major influencers have their own definitions of
“influence,” but each description involves action.
To Fedeli, “influence is the ability to get things done on the behalf of people or for people.” He says he believes a good influencer is outstanding at building relationships (with “integrity, intelligence and intensity”), adding value to a situation (“always under promise and over deliver”) and then effectively and relentlessly networking.
“You can get anything in life you want if you help enough people,” says Fedeli. “You always want to think, ‘How can I help someone?’ Then, those people want to help you because maybe you have helped them a number of times. So, when you call on people on behalf of someone or something, they reciprocate.”
Fedeli also stresses that “when you are on a board, you aren’t running the organization, the CEO is.” Board members are there “to help that person, and sometimes help protect that person from himself.”
To Andrew Brickman, principal and developer of Brickhaus Partners, that “protection” may come in the form of encouraging board presidents, nonprofit staff leaders or politicians who have served past their prime to step down. Their influence and innovativeness may have become weakened, according to Brickman, leading to stagnation and lack of activity on part of the concern they represent.
Lee Ann Howard is founder and CEO of Howard & O’Brien Executive Search, whose services include finding “key board of director members for both public and privately held companies.” Howard stresses the ABR — Always Be Recruiting — method. That ensures a board has influential members whose names elicit envy and amazement among other board recruiters and the public rather than a response of, “Who’s that?”
“Keep a running list of people who can be ideal board members for you,” suggests Howard, a MetroHealth Foundation board member. “You may think they will never consider your board, but that’s not necessarily true. And if that person is unavailable or not interested, they may know someone who would be good for your wish list.”
And, don’t get hung up on numbers. A charter may say a board should be composed of no more than 10 members. But, if a spectacular influencer drops into your lap, why say no? Change the charter or at least temporarily have 11 members.
“Get the best board members you can for where you want to go, not for where you are now, even if that changes the dynamics,” says Howard. “And, ask a busy person — they will focus on your board if they really have an interest.”
Michael Goldberg is an associate professor, design and innovation, for the Weatherhead School of Management, Case Western Reserve University (CWRU). The venture capitalist and entrepreneur says “key influencers are those who can deftly move between business, government and philanthropy.” Sometimes, those individuals have no choice in Cleveland.
“There is nowhere to hide here. There is an expectation for business leaders that they must get involved in the community. Not all people join nonprofit boards as a calculation and just because they know it’s good for business. But, there is an expectation that if you have been given a lot, you need to give back,” says Goldberg, a board member for ideastream since 2018, and a former board chair for Citizens Academy, which became part of the Breakthrough Public School network.
“I don’t know if this is true, but I feel for a city of our size, there is a disproportionate number of nonprofit organizations,” adds Goldberg. “That may be related to the legacy of philanthropy in Cleveland, when it was a larger, more economically thriving city.”
Goldberg encourages new residents to Cleveland who are eager to serve on boards and participate in meaningful volunteer work to connect with Business Volunteers Unlimited (BVU), which has offices in Cleveland and Akron. The organization provides services to nonprofits and businesses that include board governance, as well as corporate and community involvement.
Brian E. Hall is senior vice president, Greater Cleveland Partnership (GCP) and executive director of GCP Equity and Inclusion. Hall considers influence to be “the ability to have an audience that listens.” He served on GCP’s three predecessor organizations’ boards, and recently retired after 13 years of serving on University Hospitals’ board.
Hall says he is most proud of his board work helping to establish the UH Rainbow Center for Women & Children in Cleveland’s Midtown neighborhood, fighting infant mortality. In addition, his board work with the UH Otis Moss Jr. Health Center has “changed an area that was a food desert” into an access for residents to gain healthy food and learn smart eating practices.
Gilbert shares that his proudest moment as a board member came as president and CEO of the Cleveland 2016 Host Committee for the Republican National Convention.
“It was an incredibly difficult effort because so many completely different interests were involved, and people who wanted something out of it were often at odds with what other people wanted,” recalls Gilbert. “But, it wasn’t about politics. In the end, it was so successful if success means we got out of it what we wanted for Cleveland. We had the community — public, private, civic — all rowing in the same way I had never seen before. And, it can happen again.”
That is the power of influence.