Greg Zalesak shares leadership advice after 35 years of administrative service to SMPH

Greg Zalesak is the chief administrative officer for the Department of Neurology and Department of Neurological Surgery. After nearly 36 years of service to the School of Medicine and Public Health, he is retiring. Although he will be assisting with some duties into next year, we asked him about his storied career in SMPH.

Q: Can you summarize your career history at UW?
Zalesak: I have been the administrative leader of the Department of Neurology since 1986 and began to take on the same function for the Department of Neurological Surgery in 1995. I am the chief administrative officer for both departments and will continue to help out for a period of time. In addition, I served as the clinical neurosciences programs director at University Hospital and Clinics from 1996-2007 and the assistant director of the Center for Neuroscience on campus from 2000-2012.

Q: What have your responsibilities been in these roles?
Zalesak: In all these positions, I directed and managed the budgetary, financial, human resources — including faculty and staff recruitment and development — planning, space, fundraising, and program development activities and operations of the departments. I coordinated, recommended, and developed financial, strategic, and long-range operational reports and plans. I also served on department, school, medical foundation, campus, and hospital committees, such as the SMPH Policy Review and Development Committee and the UW Health Collaborative Coding Steering Committee.

Q: Why have you enjoyed working at SMPH and stayed in your role for many years?
Zalesak: Working in the Department of Neurology and Department of Neurological Surgery has been enjoyable because of the chairs, faculty, and staff. The chairs are outstanding, strong leaders with a national and international reputation in their respective fields.

The faculty and staff that I have worked with have a strong commitment to providing the very best clinical care for patients, seeking new ways to diagnose, treat, and improve the lives of patients in Wisconsin and globally through research and training the next generation of physicians and researchers.

It has been inspiring to see faculty and staff successfully continue to work through the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic to ensure patient care, research, and teaching continue to the fullest extent. I have greatly enjoyed the culture of the departments where people care about each other and help each other as needed — the department culture is like a family.

Q: What are one or two things in your career that you look back on with pride?
Zalesak: I look back on many things over the years with great pride. I have treasured and continue to treasure working with the chairs and faculty to grow the departments and their programs. It has been a great privilege and honor to have worked with people who have had such a major impact on others in our community and globally.

In Neurology, it has been working with the chairs to build the department with the recruitment of talented and diverse neurologists. The faculty have increased from 20 faculty to over 60 faculty since I started. Our department was one of the first in the nation to offer a telestroke program.

In Neurological Surgery, it was working with the chair to build a program from one clinician, one research faculty member, and a few staff to a department with 16 clinical faculty and five research faculty that have national and international reputations in their fields.

An additional accomplishment in both departments would be the recruitment and retention of highly qualified and knowledgeable administrative staff to work with faculty.

One final area of pride is my involvement with the Partners in Giving campaign since 1976, especially during my time at the UW when I served as its volunteer board chair 1991 through 2018. The experience of working with state and UW volunteers and donors has been incredible. The campaign has raised more than $83 million since its inception, more than $2 million each year, for more than 500 charities.

Q: What would you say your philosophy is as a department administrator?
Zalesak: Everyone working in the department is critical to the success of the department. Treat others how you would like to be treated. Always make sure that people know how important they are to the department and its missions and always thank them for what they are doing.

It’s also important to be sure that diversity is always respected, and suggestions are always encouraged. Allow people to explore areas outside of their jobs that may interest them. Recognize that no matter how busy you are or how much you must do, always make sure that you make time for your family.

Finally, understand that anyone can make a mistake — mistakes are opportunities for one to learn.

Q: What are you looking forward to in retirement?
Zalesak: I am really looking forward to spending time with my wife, four children and three grandchildren, learning some new things like making sushi, and going to Disneyworld. I would not be where I am today without the support and partnership that my wife Kay has given me over the years, as well as the pride I have in what my four children have accomplished.