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Esther Leisi: “Delve into a new topic and challenge yourself”

Learning was once seen as a one-time hurdle to overcome in order to enter the job market. Nowadays, continuous education is considered vital for one’s professional longevity. Esther Leisi, Executive Director in Pension Funds, tells us about her academic journey from one industry to another, and how Julius Baer helped in making it possible.




Esther Leisi’s academic pursuit began like anyone else’s. Upon earning her matura in modern languages, she dove into the world of economics at the University of Basel. At the time, a highly influential professor in banking management by the name of Henner Schierenbeck was imparting his knowledge on those keen to hear it, including Esther. His words inspired her, and she went on to focus on banking management (now referred to as banking and finance). What differentiates Esther’s story, however, is that her chapter on learning doesn’t end here, nor is it limited to one field.

Her professional debut

The Basellandschaftliche Kantonalbank was where Esther began her career in finance, in the newly created banking controlling department. It’s also where she met her now husband, and after three years at the bank she moved with him to Berne and started working for the Canton of Berne. Her interest in this line of work eventually faded, and she went on to work in risk management at ING in Zurich, with a special focus on credit risk. In time, her department was relocated to Geneva and, having just moved to Zug, she decided to stay behind and look for work elsewhere. This was when her life at Julius Baer began.

Julius Baer: part I and II

In 2002 Esther joined the finance team at Julius Baer in Zurich, working as the controller for the former Sub-Region Switzerland. After six years with Julius Baer, she left the Bank for a new challenge at Maerki Baumann & Co. AG in risk management for the next four years. “Former Head Rewards & Performance Management Benjamin Hauenstein called me up one day, asking whether I was interested in working in accounting out of HR for rewards”, she explains. She was quick to accept the offer, and worked as his deputy for four years. What she didn’t know at the time, however, was that her future job in an entirely different field was waiting for her just around the corner.

Julius Baer: part III

Having worked almost exclusively in finance, Esther couldn’t help but wonder whether it was possible for her to change industries at 45. “It felt somewhat daunting, so I started researching my options.” It was during this time that a position in pension funds came up, a field she had never considered before. “I thought that working in pension funds would make me more independent from the banking industry, something I felt was an advantage. It was something that would keep me busy for the next 20 years, so it was then that I decided to move out of my comfort zone and take on a new challenge.”

Thus began her second academic journey. Esther completed a Diploma of Advanced Studies (DAS) in Pension Fund Management and, upon receiving a nearly perfect grade for her final paper, her colleagues encouraged her to go on and complete a master’s degree. “My colleagues were so supportive. They told me I couldn’t simply stop there and I thought ‘Yes, why should I give up now? I have to conquer this.’”

Support of all forms

Esther went on to pursue her Master of Advanced Studies (MAS) in Pension Fund Management, attending classes three consecutive days a month at the Lucerne University of Applied Sciences and Arts at the campus in Zug. And although she remained employed at 90 per cent at Julius Baer, she was able to complete her studies with the support of her family and friends, as well as her colleagues at Julius Baer. “My manager Helena Wahli was very supportive and even dedicated an entire weekend to read through my 60-page thesis to give me constructive feedback, and another colleague proofread the entire thing. And of course, my colleagues took over some of my responsibilities while I was in class, for which I am very grateful.”

“I think there are a lot of people out there who finish their studies while working without any financial support from their employer,” she adds, highlighting the fact that the Bank financed 60 per cent of her school costs and time spent studying “Some even take holidays in order to attend school, or pay for their schooling entirely out of their own pockets, so Julius Baer is truly a role model in this sense.”

Embracing the challenge as an opportunity

And what were some of the challenges that Esther faced? “I started my DAS/MAS shortly before taking on my new role in pension funds, so it goes without saying that there was a bit of a learning curve at the very beginning. But this gave me a boost in the sense that it motivated me to learn by doing.” There was another somewhat unexpected obstacle that Esther faced. “I completed my first master’s in 1995, over 20 years ago. Writing a paper is completely different now, including the references. Luckily I could enlist the help of my husband’s niece, who was finishing her doctorate at the time,” she says with a smile.

By overcoming these challenges, however, Esther has become confident in her new role and shares what she enjoys most about it. “It is so multifaceted. You have everything – calculating, writing newsletters for the intranet, theoretical issues like pension fund strategy, digitisation projects, and of course phone calls from people who say things like ‘My husband just died – do I have to send you some documents?’ That’s just part of life.”

A surprise discovery

With a new degree under her belt, Esther shares some insightful advice for others interesting in pursuing an education while working. “It’s crucial to be aware of the skills you have, and those you don’t so you’re able to fill the gap and be prepared for changes that are yet to come to the future workforce.”

She also encourages individuals of all ages to consider pursuing continuing education, saying “I was surprised by how easily I was able to learn the material being taught, so don’t be afraid of learning something new. And I don’t mean by reading a newspaper. I mean really delving into a new topic and challenging yourself. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a master’s degree – it can be any form of learning, such as a diploma over the course of a single semester. You can obtain a diploma in Digitisation, Project Management, or even Coaching.”

Graduating at the top

Although it wasn’t necessarily easy juggling the responsibilities of a nearly full-time position with studies, Esther graduated as the top student of her class. “I didn’t find out until I was actually walking across the stage at the graduation ceremony, with my husband and parents watching on. And in that moment I was so thankful I wasn’t wearing heels, because I think I’d have fallen over,” she jokes.

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