Jonathan Zaleski, Master of Management alumnus, on balancing grad studies with a busy career and young family.
At the best of times, it’s a long drive between Fort St. John and Kelowna.
For Jonathan Zaleski, UBC Faculty of Management alumnus, a young father and newly hired senior commercial account manager for RBC Automotive Finance, barrelling south late last April to a new job and life in Kelowna, driving solo, towing a packed U-Haul trailer, it was a road trip he’d likely never forget.
The job offer had been immediate, a little more than a couple weeks to uproot, move, and relocate his family—one of whom was under two years of age and the other just a month shy of being born. Add in the final two months of graduate degree demands for good measure.
Outside, the driving conditions were good but inside the stuffed Ford Escape, two small feline passengers weren’t happy and from the 5:00 a.m. launch to the 7:00 p.m. arrival, roughly 14 hours straight, they let Zaleski know it, loudly, and incessantly.
“They’re meowing, meowing, meowing, and I’m like ‘Oh, my God’,” Zaleski recalls, with feeling. “It was the worst thing ever.”
Each cat, in its own carrier “because they kind of hate each other’s guts to be honest,” which meant frequent stops to let each out, separately, to eat, drink, and “do their thing.”
A good enough plan — until one of the unhappy feline passengers somehow got loose, wriggled forward and suddenly, startlingly, jumped up on Zaleski’s shoulders.
As a former star athlete and ongoing martial arts enthusiast, call it a metaphor and measure of Zaleski’s reflexes when dealing with sudden change, he somehow managed to find the necessary calm to gingerly pull over, put the cat back into its secure carrier, and carry on.
Zaleski lets out a sigh as he recalls the drive to Kelowna. “It was a long day.”
Zaleski’s new chapter in Kelowna would barely offer him a chance to catch his breath and unpack before his second child, a boy, was born just four weeks later. It was, Zaleski remembers with a slight eye roll, “bonkers.”
Finding strength in diversity
In his role at RBC, Zaleski’s task is building relationships with people who work with him and together, optimizing the commercial finances of RBC’s regionally widespread, socially diverse and growing clientele of mid- to large auto dealerships.
This means not just being a capable ‘numbers guy’, but an astute people person too.
In times of rapid and often unsettling change, Zaleski believes that business leaders and companies of today, established behemoth or small startup, must learn to recognize and leverage that ever-widening human spectrum, whether as potential clients or employees, but especially the latter. “In times of change, any organization is ultimately just the sum of its people.”
Zaleski references RBC outstanding track record for its inclusive and diverse workplace (RBC ranked #3 in the global “Top 25 Most Diverse & Inclusive Companies” in the 2019 Refinitiv Diversity & Inclusion Index), adding that “research shows that more diversity within companies produces a way better bottom line.”
Similarly, Zaleski found the diversity, both in his MM cohort, and the UBCO faculty, a real strength in the program: “In management, you’re getting very different perspectives from a lot of faculties on a lot of different subjects. You also develop relationships with all of them so you can easily reach out. The [UBCO] faculty are all very accessible, which is great.” Similarly, Zaleski appreciated that his cohort wasn’t made up of purely finance professionals but rather came from a range of diverse backgrounds including health care, government, and academia.
“There are fundamentals that kind of stay the same over time though. Compassion and kindness are two big ones that go a long way.”
Zaleski smiles. These qualities seem to come naturally to Zaleski, but he admits to learning a lot about personality traits during the MM program and how these behaviour styles can affect capacity in the workplace. Being able to better understand the nuances of how these preferred ways of being thrive in the workplace have helped make him a better leader.
Capacity for change
Blending and balancing busy family life with the demands of work and 25 months of grad school wasn’t easy but Zaleski shrugs and smiles, suggesting an innate ability to adapt to change. It helped that the blended delivery of UBC’s Faculty of Management’s Master of Management degree provided the necessary flexibility Zaleski needed to manage work and family demands amidst coursework. He credits his employer, RBC, for being supportive of his academic workload throughout his degree, something he says is a “recurring theme across leadership in the organization.”
Thinking critically about ‘adaptive capacities’ and how to ‘navigate rapid change’ are terms Zaleski says, you probably wouldn’t have heard in a graduate business course five years ago but were ever-present in the Master of Management program.
Adaptation is a process, he explains, and sometimes “it means letting the old ways die, and there’s kind of a mourning period” but it’s either adapt or risk the inevitable losses that come with resisting change. As Zaleski notes, this is probably the first time in history where four distinct ‘social generations’ work together in the same workplace.
The boomers, more attune to hierarchies and loyalty-based rewards, are now often working side-by-side with millennials. Zaleski suggests that millennials are a lot more performance-based, transitory, and outspoken. “They’re also more likely to move on if a better opportunity appears or their current job sucks,” Zaleski adds matter-of-factly.
As a ‘double UBC Okanagan alumni’ (Bachelor of Management, UBCO 2010; Master of Management, UBCO Faculty of Management, 2019), Zaleski admits location factored heavily into his decision to choose UBC’s Okanagan campus as the setting for his academic career.
Beyond the hometown factor that provides Zaleski and his growing family with supportive grandparents (happily, only a three-minute drive away), it’s a community and campus that he believes has a lot to offer both in terms of career and lifestyle. He admits to probably being biased but cites the weather as an obvious bonus. “Summertime is amazing here and then lifestyle in the winter is great too. You have ski hills all over the place.”
His decision to return to do his graduate degree was ultimately swayed not by hours of sunshine per year but by the blended model of the MM program. Zaleski had to balance having two children during the course of his degree — one at the start and one at the end—which he quickly adds requires a “shout-out to my wife who was a trooper through the entire process.”
In all aspects of research, critical thinking and writing, adds Zaleski, “there are no black and white answers to anything. You have to get really comfortable with being uncomfortable.”
Along with the strong emphasis on enterprise, innovation and “general clarity of thought that comes with this level of thinking,” Zaleski says the UBC MM program teaches one how to research, document, write and verbally present this knowledge in a logical, clear, comprehensive and persuadable manner. He leaned on these lessons while writing his final applied project on the relationships between qualitative and quantitative factors affecting utility scale geothermal energy deployment in British Columbia.
During the process, Zaleski came face-to-face with the rigours of research. “The biggest thing I learned was that solid research is a much more time consuming, tedious, and exhausting process than I had originally thought.” Despite the demands, however, Zaleski reflects that it was “also far more rewarding intellectually than I thought as well.”
Zaleski offers simple advice to anyone considering the program: “The bottom line is, like many things in life, you’re going to get out of it what you put into it.”
Calm in the chaos
It takes Zen-like aplomb not to swat a mewling cat at your head while racing down a highway, but Zaleski credits much of his centred calm to an ongoing love of sports and martial arts.
While completing his undergrad degree, Zaleski, 6’5”, was the game-winning forward in the climatic 2008/09 UBCO Heat men’s basketball rumble with arch-rival VIU Mariners and later on, in his off time from work, a tae kwon do champion and mixed-martial arts and basketball coach in Fort St. John.
Today, as a busy young dad, Zaleski says his sports activities “have dialled down significantly” but the mental and spiritual resilience he learned continue to aid him in business and life. “Meditation and discipline learned from martial arts have allowed me to learn to think clearly and remain focused, even when life is very chaotic.”
In turn, team sports have had a major effect on his emotional intelligence. “Specifically, understanding how people think and feel in competitive environments and still manage to work together to achieve common goals.”
With Kelowna roots now firmly down for his young family, and a graduate degree checked on his bucket list, he’s focused on growing into his role at RBC. For him and RBC, the territory is immense — all of B.C. excluding the Lower Mainland and Vancouver Island — but Zaleski appreciates the opportunity to connect into a regional and global company like RBC that prioritizes research and development.
But please, don’t ask him to deliver your cat.