John Yonan spent the first 15 years of his professional career as an engineer for the City of Chicago Department of Transportation, working his way up from entry-level to deputy commissioner and chief engineer. In 2012, he was appointed Superintendent of the Cook County Department of Transportation and Highways. In this new position, he was charged with overseeing the planning, design, and construction of the countywide transportation infrastructure. An important piece of this work involved contributing to the county’s first long-range transportation plan in 76 years.
Though John had a great deal of technical expertise, he felt less skilled at communicating the long-range plan to the “doubting public” concerned about where their tax dollars were going. He realized that he needed better ways to convey to a lay audience why the department was prioritizing specific types of work, and better ways to transform messages about his decisions into “stories” for real people.
During his Civic Leadership Academy fellowship, John was challenged to select an “action skill” to develop over the six-month program. He chose storytelling, which involves three things: better understanding of the viewpoints of one’s audience, greater focus on the desired outcome of a communication, and the right timing.
Participating in the CLA global practicum in Delhi, India, John also advanced his goal to be a better communicator. In particular, the concept of “cultural intelligence,” defined as seeing through others’ eyes and understanding the different ways others process things, resonated with John.
Looking toward his future as a leader, John says, “The understanding that it's not about projects, it's people…[is] a legacy I hope to leave behind when I move on.”