With a 40-plus year career that's taken her to eight cities across Canada and into several different sectors from high-tech and health care to higher ed, Gitta Kulczycki's professional life has been filled with accomplishments and personal firsts.
This year, she added another one to the list: interviewing for and accepting a new job remotely from nearly 5,000 kilometres away.
"I’m coming to Dal having gone through a process of talking to a lot of people at the university, but for the first time in my whole career I am moving to a position where I’ve never physically sat with the people I’m going to be working with and for," says Kulczycki, who began her role as Dal's new vice-president finance and administration (VPFA) on Monday.
Kulczycki says the whole experience “worked quite beautifully,” a testament of sorts to how people and organizations have been able to adapt in the face of a global pandemic. It’s a situation Kulczycki is quite familiar with, as she’s spent the last several months working through the same challenges at the University of Alberta (U of A), where she served in the same role (vice-president of finance and administration) she’s now taking on at Dalhousie. It’s meant challenges, for sure, but also new opportunities for institutional change.
“When COVID came upon us, we had to turn on a dime to do things that we said before either could never be done or would take a long time,” she says.
An accomplished career
As at U of A, where she spent four years as VPFA, Kulczycki’s new position at Dal encompasses a range of diverse portfolios integral to supporting the university’s core mission of teaching, research and service. At Dal these include financial resources, human resources, facilities management, information technology services, ancillary services, environmental health and safety, internal audit services, athletics, and sustainability.
With all of these units (many of them sizeable) reporting into her office, the scale and scope of the VPFA role is significant. But Kulczycki brings to the table decades of experience in similar roles at large organizations, both in the post-secondary sector and beyond.
The first time she moved to Atlantic Canada to take a job, in the mid-1990s, it was to oversee finances and corporate services at a regional health care corporation in Moncton. And prior to that, she’d worked as chief financial officer/vice-president business services at a hospital in Calgary, as an executive in a Canadian subsidiary of a Silicon Valley tech firm, and as a manager in high tech in Ottawa, among other positions.
Kulczycki’s professional entry into higher education came in 2004 when she took on the role of vice-president of resources and operations at Western University in London, Ont. With 32,000 students, a $1.1-billion budget and more than 13,000 employees annually, Western — a member of Canada’s U15 group of research-intensive universities, like Dal — offered up plenty of professional challenges and opportunities over the course of Kulczycki’s 12 years there.
The importance of relationships
Fellow U15 school U of A brought an even larger size and budget to manage when she joined in 2016, all set against the backdrop of shrinking provincial education grants — what she describes as one of the defining trends of her time in the post-secondary sector.
“Governments have been putting proportionately less funding into post-secondary education, so there’s this continuing tension between escalating costs and the fact that money is finite,” she says.
Resource planning became a major focus for Kulczycki during her time at U of A. To manage budgetary pressures, she worked alongside the provost to develop and implement a new budget model that replaced a longstanding incremental annual budget with one that rewards teaching and research activities based on transparent agreed-to metrics. She also introduced an international benchmarking initiative that used staff-gathered data on service delivery at the university to learn how to improve services and better allocate administrative resources.
Kulczycki says crisscrossing the country in her professional career — north to south, west to east — and exploring different sectors has enabled her to grow and better understand what it takes to succeed in difficult conditions.
“You learn and you build a body of your knowledge and experience that you can take with you, but at the end of the day it’s all about relationships — working well with other people and embracing change. That’s key, I think.”
A family first
If financial management has been a defining element of Kulczycki’s professional career, it also proved pivotal to her own personal life early on growing up in Sudbury, Ont. as the eldest of four children. With a dad working in mining and a stay-at-home mom turned grocery store worker, it was a household where money wasn’t always easy to come by. Paying her own way for university, Kulczycki decided to stay close to home and attended Laurentian for her undergrad.
“We all went to university,” she says of her and her siblings, “but when we look at the experiences of my mother and father’s families, coming from Germany, we were the very first ones in our family who had the opportunity to go to university.”
Kulczycki excelled in commerce and math courses at Laurentian and a few years later, in her spare time while working, she completed her MBA at the University of Ottawa.
“I’m one of those weird people who really likes math,” she says, laughing. “Me and the engineering students.”
Now, as she settles into life in Halifax (following a 14-day period of self-isolation, of course) and a new position at Dal, Kulczycki says she is thrilled to rediscover what she calls a “very welcoming” culture in Atlantic Canada.
She’s also excited to pick up her fishing rod again. The last time she lived on the East Coast more than 20 years ago, she and some female friends decamped one weekend to a cabin on the shores of the Miramichi River in New Brunswick for a fly-fishing getaway. While typically more comfortable with spincast fishing (which usually takes place on still water as opposed to moving water) she was excited to try something different. It took a while, but she eventually got a bite . . . then came another . . . and another.
“I caught three lovely salmon,” she says. “It was awesome.”
It may be some time before Kulczycki is able to carve out some time for a fishing trip — she'll have a lot on her plate getting to know the Dal community and her team, especially working through a pandemic. But she's excited to tackle what lies ahead for Dal at this pivotal moment.
“When we look ahead, it’s an opportunity for us to look at what have we learned, what has worked well, what it is that we should take into our future from that perspective,” she says. “We’ve learned a lot about how work can be done, haven’t we?”
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