22. February 2023

«Maybe I should have taken more risks and followed my gut feeling»

Today, I am very excited to meet Michael Rohrer, Executive Director and Senior Manager of J.P. Morgan‘s Private Bank, who has been playing an essential role as COO for establishing a new Wealth Management business in Germany for the last 18 years. Growing up in a family of musicians – his mother was a violinist, and his father was a pianist and conductor at the Zurich Opera House - they obviously succeeded in igniting Michael with a fire for the classical flute since childhood, which still burns more than 50 years later. To the surprise of many of his colleagues, he “outed” himself as a passionate classical flautist at the occasion of the first-ever internal J.P. Morgans’ Got Talent contest of the European Private Banking Division. In our interview, he reflects with us on how he managed his parallel passions for banking and music and what he recommends to young talents and organizations to allow employees to align passions across work and private lives.

Such a pleasure to see you again after so many years, Michael!* Thanks for taking the time for this “Human Facts meets.” Your career is a beautiful living example of why organizations that see employees not only as job-fillers but as whole Selves, who have a whole life to offer, have an advantage in hiring and retaining talent. Particularly today.

1. But before we dive into this, let us know when you decided to go about a banking career and not a flautist one and why?

Michael: Thank you, Eva, for your invitation to this interview. It comes at a time when the work-life balance has never been a topic of higher importance than it is today.
To your question, my parents, as musicians, obviously had deep insight into this profession’s pros and cons. The classical genre is a small niche with brutal competition, mainly from Asia and Eastern Europe, delivering breath-taking talents to this tight market. If you fail to fight through to the top of the league table, it is hard to stand and earn a decent income compared to people working in economic sectors like banking, for example. It’s a hard job with many travel activities, long days, and compensation risks. And as we have seen during the pandemic and in economically challenging times in general, culture is sadly always at the forefront when spending is being cut. I remember my father often saying, «you can become whatever you want, but better not a professional musician!». I took his advice seriously. When I had to decide upon my professional future, the three large Swiss banks, UBS, CS, and SBC, stood for financial strength, job safety, career opportunities, and good reputation, so I tried to start my banking career in one of them…

2. Throughout your banking career, you managed to keep playing the flute at a very high level. I think everybody with a specific passion besides work, e.g., a sport, a musical instrument, or being a caregiver for family members, etc., will be very interested to hear: How did you manage this challenge of pursuing your music passion parallel to your career? What helped you most?

Michael: When your heart beats a little bit stronger on the side of your hobby than on your profession – I wouldn’t have had the courage to publicly make such a statement in the middle of my banking career - you automatically keep your passion alive. The more pressure and challenges I face professionally, the more I desire to counteract them by playing music. It has always been vital for me to maintain a solid, parallel world to balance my life, to reduce harmful stress after a working day, and transform it into a kind of positive stress when practicing hard to learn a new piece. It is essential to stick to a fixed schedule. For example, I leave the office at about 6 pm to have dinner with my family and start practicing from 8.30 until 10 pm. Daily. With few exceptions when feeling unwell, or for example, on very hot, humid, and sweltering summer evenings. Being mentally balanced is ultimately beneficial for both the bank and me. I feel I can manage difficult or extraordinary situations in the business with greater calm and sovereignty. My recommendation to everybody is: Do not just talk about work-life balance, DO IT!

3. Looking back, has there been a moment where you were close to giving up one of your passions? What led you to keep going? What would have helped you make it easier to live up to your passion and career together?

Michael: Do you mean to give up one for the other? No. My goal has always been to have a good living standard based on solid financing. With a family and all its high costs associated with it, I wanted to avoid being exposed to an irregular or uncertain income. I managed pretty well to develop and maintain my two parallel worlds without one being impacted by the other. They happen in different „time zones“ of my day. Of course, I may be tired or exhausted when coming home and maybe not have the energy or concentration to practice. But these are exceptions.

4. Looking back, what are the 2-3 things you are most grateful for regarding your passion and career?

Michael: In banking definitely that I had the opportunity to work now for more than four decades for two well-reputed firms that gave me a solid basis for my life and my family. To be appreciated by your working colleagues across business lines and functions gives you the necessary self-confidence and personal stability to deliver good results. It frees up capacity and gives pleasure and joy for your passion outside the firm.
On the musical side, I am grateful that my parents opened the door very early to the infinite world of classical music and provided the necessary support to get a first-class education in this fine instrument. I am also very grateful for my fantastic network with professional musicians – not only flutists but also players of a variety of other instruments or even conductors – from whom I can learn a lot when talking to them or listening to their masterclasses or concerts. Last but not least, I am super grateful for the patience and understanding of my wife and my daughter (and neighbors), who must endure my daily practice.

5. What do you think your employers profited from you being engaged in two different professions? Or, in other words, what have been the most surprising parallel?

Michael: Musicians typically pay attention to details, work very concentrated and accurately, are keen to deliver flawless results, are self-critical, and are good listeners and team players to meet or exceed the audience's expectations. These are all attributes I also need for my job as a banker, which my employer ultimately benefits from. For the performance assessment of an employee, it certainly helps if the employer knows about your activities outside the firm and thereby has a better understanding and picture of you. When I began to make my hobby more visible to the outside world with posts on LinkedIn, Facebook, or Instagram, I was very astonished to see how much the interest in this human facet of my person increased and how many approached me to ask about it. The two short videos I published on LinkedIn last year were accessed more than 18.000 times, and 9% of the viewers were in managerial positions. It also brought me connectivity with people I hadn’t met before. Showing what matters to you in life helps to bring you closer in contact with colleagues and to meet them on a different level.

6. What do you regret most?

Michael: By nature, I am more of an entrepreneur than an employee. I probably focused too much on safety than on having “fun”, and the courage to do what I like to do. Maybe I should have taken more risks and followed my gut feeling. Today, I am convinced that I would have become a successful manager of my own company or maybe a professional musician in demand. Hard to say, it is what it is, but I think for me it’s better to play the flute for fun than to make my living with it.

7. Looking back, what would you advise your “younger self” about designing an enriched and passionate life?

Michael: I definitely cannot complain about what I have achieved in my life, and I am grateful for the job opportunities employers offered me. The fact that I only changed the firm once in 2004 from UBS to J.P. Morgan indicates that I have always been satisfied in my various banker roles overall. But as I said, being focused on (job)safety is ok, but you may miss other or better opportunities in your life as a result. It all depends obviously also on your (financial) background and the personal circumstances you can bring to the table.

8. When you kicked off your banking career in 1981, it was rather an exception to pursue another passion on such a high level (and to admit it). Today, this is much more common and even demanded by the new generations. For example, we see more and more young people work for an organization but build their start-up aside or engage in family, a hobby, or a charity. What can we learn from you in this regard? What would you how to successfully design their multiple careers?

Michael: It’s difficult to say whether or not it was less common at that time to pursue a parallel passion. I’d rather believe people did less talk about it. When I was in the middle of my banking career, I would never have had the idea to ask my employer to work a bit less to have more time for my flute. Unthinkable.
Today’s generation is very different, and as you correctly said, openly demanding a balanced life in the sense of „I was not born just to work!“ If you want to succeed in managing two careers, your priority must be on the source of your income, in my case, my job at J.P. Morgan. Secondly, less is more: One hobby is better than two or more! Whatever it is, do this one thing right. And invest your time and energy in this one activity. You will be happy with your performance only if you make progress. Progress and success are the sources of your motivation. That’s why I practice daily. Daily. Daily! Thirdly: Structure your day. The time slot when you want to/can practice must be free. It can also be helpful when the rest of your family or your neighbor knows when you finish!

9. And what would be your advice for organizations to do to hire and support talents in unfolding their passions in life?

Michael: The pre-condition to allow employees to unfold talent outside their job is that firms are adequately staffed and employees can do their work within the agreed working hours. Of course, there can be temporary exceptions. I think that employees do not expect their employers to subsidize, for example, the membership of a fitness studio or to grant similar financial benefits. What counts is adequate spare time after work to allow people to shut down and recover by living their passions.
Work-life balance has never been a topic of higher importance for organizations than it is today. The shareholder value concept has squeezed out our generation over the last 25 years, leading to a sharp increase in people with burn-out syndromes. In the meantime, many firms are rediscovering – or beginning to rediscover – the value and importance of the health of their employees. I suddenly hear things like „family first“, and we see new healthcare programs being established and supported by many firms for their employees, for example. Signs that things are changing in the right direction.

10. And finally, is there anything left you would have loved I ask you – or would you like to share?

Michael: I would have expected a question about the relationship between me and my flute, as the two of us spend much time together and go through thick and thin. Usually in great harmony, but it happens from time to time that she hates me or vice versa. Over time, the player and the instrument grow together. It becomes part of you, a different organ you can use to express yourself in various colors. It’s so to speak another voice with which I can impact the audience. It works based on the principle “garbage in – garbage out” and mirrors my mood and the course of my working day before. I feel this from the first tone I play. And there is little chance to change that, so I better put my flute away then. Motivation is when you look forward to your instrument when you come home from work in the evening. And finally, you must be relaxed when playing it. Tension in your body from occupational stress is poison. By the way, for those who are interested, I am playing a handmade 9ct. rose gold flute made by Muramatsu in Japan. A dream and endless love.

… so lovely! Thanks for sharing this insight. I learned to throw your flute on the floor in rage as we sometimes see tennis stars beating up their rackets on the floor ground is not an option! Speaks for the emotional discipline of musicians! I hope your example can inspire even very traditional organizations to see the advantage in opening up to meet, tap and support employees to live meaningful lives instead of only fulfilling jobs. Michael, again thank you so much for your time and the open and generous sharing of your personal insights and experiences. I look forward to continuing to keep in touch, exchanging with you about your passions, and of course, to “hearing” more from you as a flautist!

*) I met Michael Rohrer 20 years ago at UBS Frankfurt. Although we stayed in loose contact over the years, it was only in 2022, when our ways crossed again in Frankfurt, that I learned about his classical music passion and impressive, for me, an invisible career as a flautist. Growing up in a generation where a career was considered something very unidirectional, he is an early example of trying to design a life where work and passion are mutually reinforcing passions.

Dr. Eva Bilhuber
Dr. Eva Bilhuber
Human Facts AG
Founder | Managing Partner
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