Episode 40 – Interview with speaker, author and performance coach, Christine Burns
For our final episode of the season, we were absolutely thrilled to speak with Christine Burns. Christine (BA Psych, PG Dip Sport Bus Mngt, MIPPA) is the CEO and Co-Founder of WALT Institute. As a former elite athlete in hockey for New Zealand, she has over 20 years of coaching, sport psychology and performance expertise which she brings to the global arena of Authentic Leadership. Typically, she works with individuals and teams in STEMM to provide the strategies to bust through the status quo, be seen, be heard and be the best version of themselves every single day!
Here’s all the info about Christine’s book:
You can follow Christine and learn more about her work here:
Hello and welcome to Let’s Talk SciComm, a podcast by the University of Melbourne Science Communication Teaching Team. I’m Associate Professor Jen Martin and my wonderful co-host is Dr Michael Wheeler and we believe that science isn’t finished until it’s communicated.
Alrighty, we are go. So hello everybody and welcome to another episode of Let’s Talk SciComm. Welcome to you my friend Michael. How are you doing?
I am excellent today Jen and I’m very excited for today’s episode.
Yeah, well I’m very excited to introduce you to our guest today, Christine Burns. Hello, Christine.
Hello, how are you doing? It’s great to be here.
Well we are super thrilled to have you here. So for our listeners, Christine is the co-founder and the CEO at the Women Authentic Leadership Training Institute, also known as the Walt Institute that you might have seen on your socials.
She’s a performance and personal development coach. She’s a speaker. She’s an author. And I’ve gathered from reading a bit about you Christine that you’re someone who really believes in helping people to take action on things that they care about, and in particular, encouraging people to feel like they have the skills and the confidence to rise to any challenge, which sounds pretty important to me.
And so you’ve got a background in psychology and sport psychology and exercise science and business management. And of course, part of why we wanted to speak with you today is because you’ve recently published your first book which is called “Igniting Resilience: Overcoming the despair of receiving a death sentence”, which of course it goes without saying we do want to ask you all about.
But I guess importantly for our audience Christine, you’ve got a huge amount of experience working with scientists and helping them as individuals and also in teams to do their best work. So we absolutely can’t wait to speak with you today. So welcome again and thanks so much for making the time.
Thank you, what an amazing introduction.
I’m sitting like wow, who is it?
It’s you, it’s really you.
That’s the exact response that we’re going for. Christine, I’m really excited to chat to you. It sounds like you’ve got a really kind of broad experience and that you’re working in a lot of different areas. So I’m really excited to chat about some of the themes that tie a lot of those different areas together.
Yeah, I think like Jen said, it’s a lot of that thing of taking action. I guess it all started, I was, I’m a former elite athlete, so I played hockey and indoor hockey for New Zealand.
And so kind of, a lot of what I base my things on is just basically getting out there and giving it a go. And that’s where my biggest thing is, of take action and then build up your confidence. Then you know, become that person who you want to be along the way.
Oh, I can’t wait to delve into this conversation Christine. And I just really quickly want to tell Michael how I actually met you because I’ve been raving about you behind the scenes. So late last year I think you and I were running workshops in adjacent rooms at the University of Melbourne.
And then you and your business partner Liz were in the room next door. And I kind of could just overhear snippets every now and again of what you’re talking about. And I was really torn because part of it’s like I’m really invested in what I’m here to teach, but I really would like to be next door listening to these amazing women and hear more about what they’re talking about. So it was, it was an interesting experience for me, that I only got to hear little bits but I wanted to hear more.
Yeah, I was talking about excitement I think. I was, you probably heard it because we were so excited to be there as well in these face-to-face situations after being locked in our rooms kind of thing. It was just, oh it was awesome. And it was so cool to run into you. It was like, you were as excited as we are.
Three, three women who were acting like 5-year-olds at their first ever party with fairy bread, I think.
Pretty much but yeah don’t, don’t tell our secret. But yeah.
No, no, we won’t. But in all seriousness Christine, like I think the system that our listeners work in, it’s a very hierarchical system, it’s a very competitive system. There’s a lot of metrics in this system that that often make us feel very inadequate and full of self-doubt. There’s a system where you know, it’s a system where long-term job security is really hard to come by. There’s constant rejection and setbacks. You know, your grant gets rejected, your paper gets rejected.
And then there’s the kind of the bigger picture of the systemic barriers, which you know the gender inequity, the discrimination, the racism, the pay gaps, lack of access to affordable child care. There’s this big picture really difficult stuff.
But what I find so often when I’m talking with people in STEM and I guess particularly women in STEM but absolutely people in STEM is that even though there’s these big external barriers, often it’s actually the internal barriers that are just as real and often just as insurmountable. We can’t necessarily change what’s going on in the bigger system but we all have the power to change our thoughts and our behaviours and our responses to situations and experiences.
And so I guess before we talk about resilience and the experience that led you to write your book, can you tell us a bit more about your career and what led you to psychology and sport science? And as you said before, you’ve been an elite athlete. I know you represented New Zealand in indoor hockey and you were also captain to the national team for many years. So tell us, tell us your story.
One of the things that always comes through is my mum, five foot half an inch Scottish woman and my dad, six foot four growly bear Scotsman. We always kind of had to see you know, you got the short and the tall of it. So there was… you know, well covered.
There was always this thing of like just give it a go. You never know what you can do unless you give it a go. It’s that thing of like if I put in the effort and I work on me, then I can only do my best. Just give it a go, you never know. And it’s like all you can do is learn. Do the hard yards. We say in New Zealand, “do the mahi”, which means work. So do the mahi, get the treats.
And and that’s the kind of thing it is. You know, do the mahi. Do your assignment, get it in early, and then you can get the treats of [going] down to South Africa or Canada or whatever you get to play hockey and you know, be amazing.
So for me to… no one’s going to come and save me, no one’s going to do all that for me. I’m going to go and do the hard yards and find that stuff out for myself. And I’ve got a scholarship to go and do my first part of the sport science so now’s my chance to learn and soak up as much as I can. Those people are investing in me, so I’m going to give it my all.
I also worked in the gym and I taught group fitness for Les Mills at home in New Zealand too. You know, the home of Les Mills. So for me then it meant that I could… when I was teaching groups and taking classes. You know, I could talk the talk. I had the, I had the expertise, I had the experience. I had my own personal learning and growth and I could share it with people then.
And I think that’s probably where the leadership thing came from ’cause I was like, I like this stuff. You know, being in here at 6 am in the morning, taking these people and they were like… rolling out of bed. And I get to inspire them and to see, to see the impact that I could have on men at 6 am in the morning. It’s that thing of that connection, bring out the best in someone, inspire people and they will rise to the occasion as well.
And so I’m interested then to, to jump into this word resilience which I think is such an important word but also to some extent an overused word. Every LinkedIn bio, people claim “I’m resilient”. Every job description claims “We’re looking for someone who’s resilient”.
But I’d really like to hear from you. You know, your story. How did you come to value resilience? How did you come to identify resilience as a core part of who you are and and why you believe it is something essential for people out there?
For me I mean, I guess the book Igniting Resilience, the book came about you know, the 2nd of November 2016. I heard my phone ringing and I was like… And then I looked at the phone and I saw it had Unknown as the, as the person ringing in and I’m like, who the hell is this?
So usual, picked it up, went “Hello, Christine speaking”. And then on the other end was my surgeon and she was ringing just to check up on me after I had emergency surgery. And I was like “Yeah yeah yeah, I’m good, recovering really well. You know, I’m a fast healer, doing really well, felt really good”. And she said “Oh, we just got our pathology results back and by the way, we need to let you know that you’ve got endometrial cancer”.
Yeah, and so for the next 30 seconds, I just swore profanities. And I remember walking backwards and forwards through the dining room and through into the kitchen and then back through and I just kept swearing. Now I did it for 30 seconds ’cause I’ve trained myself. You can’t stand on an indoor hockey court or on an outdoor hockey field and be so worried about what’s just happened in front of you. You know, you gotta get back on your game.
And so I was like *who-sh*. So I made the decision at that point to go OK, you lot can all do your thing medically and I’ll do my thing mentally, emotionally, spiritually and physically. And it’s, it’s that kind of thing for me is that, the thing for me is resilience is to take back control, control the controllables is what we always say.
Control the controllables, which is you, your thoughts, your feelings, and your actions. And when you’re in control of that. That’s that ability to rise to the occasion, to… The way we talk about resilience is to withstand and recover from the failures, the challenges, the setbacks, the, the phone calls you know, those kinds of things.
And it’s, it’s that ability for us… So we talk about withstanding that like bamboo, you can bend with it, you can move with it. We took about bouncing forward. It’s like learn from the BS. Learn from the crap that just happened. Learn from that moment and take it forward.
And that for me and us is the true thing about what resilience is. It’s basically I had to five years of surgeries, treatments. And then because of the protocol I was on, it was a, it was a 5 year journey which thank goodness December last year, I got booted out of that team, which is the only team I’ve ever been happy to get booted out of.
So I’ve got the all clear. Thank you. Yeah, thank you. And it’s, it’s that whole time is to keep going, to withstand it and recover from it and bounce forward. That to me is what resilience is all about to be honest, yeah.
Yeah, wow Christine, thanks for sharing your story. I mean, I can’t begin to imagine what it’s like to get a phone call like that.
And I mean yeah it, it just sounds absolutely terrifying. Would you say that that experience taught you about resilience? Or were you a resilient person before you had that phone call and that five years of doubt and uncertainty?
Hmm, I think it, it made me more resilient. It got me to, to bounce forward I guess even more. I was always pretty resilient and I you know, got the DNA of my parents. I’ve got the upbringing of my parents and you know, give it a go.
So I’d fall off my bike and I’d hear my parents going… My nickname was Belle as I was growing up. And be “Get back on on your bike Belle“.
So I think I, I was resilient and I was always someone that kept going no matter what. And then when that happened, it was like Wow, I could feel sorry for myself. I could go into the waiting rooms. I could go into the treatment rooms. I could go into the, into Peter Mac and I could get absorbed in the darkness and the fear and the, and the horror of it.
Or I could stay above it and be at my best. And I did. My thing was about who do I show up as today every single day I had treatment. I made sure I was tidy. I made sure I had my makeup on. I made sure I turned up in there and I was my best.
If I felt 50%, I’d bring 50 out of 50. If I felt 98%, I’d bring 98 out of 98. And it was that… I couldn’t control it, but I could control me in what went through my top 6 inches. And I showed up the best I could. And and that increased my resilience on the way through.
Yeah, ’cause I, I suppose I’m thinking of myself and the majority of listeners who haven’t been faced with their own mortality like that. I mean, it sounds like it was a great learning experience for you in terms of teaching you more about resilience.
But what about others who who haven’t had an experience like that? What advice would you have for them? How can they learn about resilience without having [a] terrifying experience like that?
Yeah, and that, that’s what… I mean, I practise what, what we teach. I, I did the little things and it’s the little things that make the biggest difference. It’s the… every day, I would get up in the morning and I would have my morning routine. I controlled that. It’s every evening, I would do what we call 3 good things.
So that comes through from positive psychology, from Martin Seligman. And it’s the three good things. You know, what three good things have happened for you in the last 24 hours? And that could be as simple as I had a delicious coffee. The flowers were out as I was walking into the hospital this morning. And I got the first car park that I found as we drove around the corner. You know, it’s just, it’s just the three good things. And you get your jollies from there and then we fling off all the happy chemicals.
And it’s in anybody… Like within my book, I’ve got at the end of each section, I’ve got these things that I’ve called limitless possibilities. And it’s just little key points of like anybody can do it. Like meditate, each day. Do your three good things. Have your routines. Set yourself up every morning so that you’ve got things that you can control.
Yeah, you can’t control what your boss is going be like. You can’t control whether you’re going to get the next rejection or not. You can’t control when you get that piece of work back that’s got all the write-ups all over it and you see bright red on your screen and you’re like, oh my gosh, I’m losing it. I gave you a nano-tanty. You know, in those moments, like one of the things I always say to people is like and the people who send me work was have your nano-tanty, throw your toys out the cot, call it for everything under the sun, get it out. And then go right: what can I do?
So I think everyone now has official permission Christine, that next time they get a rejection letter, 30 seconds of swearing every word that come, can come out of your mouth and then move on.
Yeah, and then spread out the treats, more delicious coffees.
So Christine, like you just said, you, you work with people in STEM every day. And that’s obviously who’s listening to our conversation right now. That’s our audience.
So how do you think all of this applies, particularly to people working in STEM in terms of the importance of resilience and and the ability of people to just keep showing up with their best self and keep facing up to challenges.
I know you’ve got a lot of experience in this, this world of STEM. What have you found out?
A lot of the people that we’ve, that we work with, the thing that they… It’s almost like what can I control? It is me. I am in charge of, of this and this and this. Even if it’s as simple as your first draft that you write on an article. You’re in charge of that. That is your work. Give it everything you’ve got.
And it’s… Our big thing that we always talk about is, it’s about who you be, not what you do. Who you be? How you show up? You know, who you be, it’s like be curious, be… You know, my number 1 value is fun or I’m not doing it, including taxes.
So, I’m only going to do things if I have fun. So it doesn’t matter where I am. You know, I’ll go in and see corporates. I’ll go and see the you know, the CEO of the Bionics Institute and I will wear my cool shoes and I’ll wear my stylish sunnies as well when I walk in there.
I will have fun. I will be me. I’ll dial things up and I’ll dial things down, but I will still be me. And I think that’s what a lot happens in STEM is who people truly be on the inside gets taken away from them because they’re meant to fit into this box of tradition and what has just been handed down. It’s like nah.
Yeah, I think you’re absolutely right there Christine. I remember being really impressed by one of the first conferences I ever went to. A lot of the speakers were, were wearing suits, giving very formal presentations, no jokes included in the presentations. And then one speaker came along, was wearing a tracksuit, had loads of jokes as part of their presentation, a lot of good science as well.
And I just thought wow, you know, that person’s really being themselves. They’re being authentic and I can see how that’s carrying over into their communication. And I suppose a lot of our listeners are really interested in how can they communicate their science more effectively to to have impact.
What role do you think resilience plays there? Is it, is it just about saying OK, I don’t need to conform to the most traditional ways of doing things and thinking outside the box. Is that kind of the advice that you would give to scientists?
Maybe some of it. Yeah, yeah. It, it is that thing of to go… You know, people can see when you’re you know, the real you. When when you’re aligned with who you truly are on the inside, people go “Wow, that was awesome. I’m not quite sure what it was, but that was, that was awesome, that was really solid”. You know, there’s a certainty, there’s a believability in it kind of thing.
And it’s one of the things that I love is Francesca Gino. She’s at, she’s a professor at Harvard Business school. And she’s amazing. She talks about unleashing your rebel talents. Not being a rebel, but unleashing your rebel talents. And she does that. She wears her Hugo Boss suit. She goes and works with the corporates. She goes and works with the people in STEM. She wears funky styley watches. She wears her red converse shoes. And she’s got the most funkiest awesome glasses as well. And it’s like dude…
And she did research where she went in in her normal straight-up black shoes blah blah blah. And went in there and they filled in a survey for believability and so they’re Joe average. She went in there, did the same thing in the afternoon with her cool funky red shoes on, styley watch, styley glasses and people went wow, that chick 10 out of 10.
You know, and it’s that’s what it’s about, is be yourself in those situations. It’s like if you’ve got a joke to tell and it’s appropriate, tell it. Have fun. And that’s when we get congruence. That’s when we get confidence. That’s when we get resilience. That’s when we have certainty. And then we bring it. Like we totally show up at our best when we, when we do, when we be like that really.
It’s such amazing advice Christine. And I’m just thinking about how we kind of teach this stuff. Because Michael and I and our whole team you know, we spent a lot of our time teaching writing skills and public speaking skills.
And you know, it’s very easy to say you need to write in your own voice, you need to speak and be yourself and be true to yourself and be authentic. But it’s actually quite hard to know how to do that I think until you’ve done it and felt that that deep joy that comes from, from the alignment of I’m presenting to the world who I really am.
I’m just wondering you know, have you learned how to teach that to people? Because I think in communication, being true to yourself is so essential. But it’s not always easy, particularly when you feel like you’re being judged all the time.
Yeah it, it is. It’s not easy and and that’s something that we always say. It’s simple, it’s not always easy. And it’s the little bit, do the little bit by little bit by little bit. It might be the first presentation that you do to your supervisors or your first presentation that you do internally at your team or your organisation.
Give it a go in that situation and and just do, just do a little bit. Might be that in the intro of something when you’re presenting. Just kind of do, be, whatever it is. Might be that you’re even just change it up on your slides or you change it up in the way that you have, the words that you’re using or something. It’s like do a little bit to start with.
My key is, if you’re not nervous before something like that, then you’re not going to perform at your best. So it’s, it’s the self-talk.
And then you do it again and then it becomes again and again and again. And then it becomes natural and and it expands and becomes more.
And the rebel within grows ever stronger.
It does. And it’s, I’m not you know. As I say, it’s not easy. I’ve, a place I worked, I’ve had the boss stand over me and yell at me. I could feel her spit on my face even when I was going through this whole ordeal. I had been diagnosed and I needed to go for another scan, I needed to take that afternoon off work. I was still recovering from surgery at the time.
I had gone into work because I felt like I had to, because of the way I was been treated. And she treated me as if I just had a, a common cold. And I’m like “Dude, I can hardly move. I’ve made it here. I need to have this scan. I’ve got that shit growing inside me and you’re treating me like I’ve got a common cold and you’re standing over me like I’ve done something wrong”.
So I hear it. You know, I hear it from people. And it is hard sometimes. But it’s like, it’s like what’s best for us. What’s best for you as an individual. And and that takes courage and part of resilience is, is to implement the courage at the time. Yep.
Yeah that’s, that’s great advice Christine. Yeah, can’t imagine what that’s like. And you, I suppose what you’re saying there is you can, you can’t necessarily control all of the, the external factors. But if you know, if you can take control of your internal factors and take control of your own day and it’s about I suppose comparing yourself to yourself rather than comparing yourself to others.
Yeah, I think that’s all fantastic. And yeah, we could chat about this I think for all day. But we are getting to that point in the podcast where we would like to move on to the rapid fire questions.
So just some light hearted quick questions Christine. Are you ready?
I’m not. Oh my gosh. Now I’m really nervous.
Yeah, we didn’t, we didn’t warn you about this bit, but we knew you were up for it.
I’m up for it.
OK, so first question. If you had to pick an alternative career to what you’re doing now, what would it be?
Ah, I love it. We’ve interviewed a science comedian and it was, it was amazing. Yeah.
I’d love it. I’d love it. Yep, yep that would be, that would be my go to now I think.
Comedy and science are a match made in heaven, so…
You’d be so nervous though, wouldn’t you? Standing up in front of a crowd to make jokes. But maybe you can translate that into performance. Maybe you perform better than ever.
One would hope so. Even better when you’re being wiped off stage.
It would definitely be a baptism by fire in terms of increasing resilience I think.
Oh yeah, it would. Yeah.
OK Christine, your proudest professional moment.
Proudest professional moment. Oh my gosh. Professional, professional. Am I allowed my professional sport? Though it wasn’t actually a professional sport career. No, that was an amateur.
Of course, no no. You can, you can say that. I was expecting you to say publishing my first book.
Yeah, that too. It’s kind of, it’s really interesting, ’cause after such a long time I’ve… well say it took me like four and a bit years to write and it was kind of like oh, thank goodness that you know, I’ve done that.
I think probably actually my proudest professional moment is probably when I stepped into… So it was my own realisation that I was CEO of WALT Institute. And that was because I had rubbished it beforehand. Like Ah whatever, I played it down, all those things that we aren’t meant to do, which is typical of what our clients do.
And then that moment when I went You know what? That is me. I’d be that person. I’d be the CEO of WALT Institute. And I run our organisation. I run our company like it’s a sports team. I think for me that that was, that was a defining moment actually, to be honest yeah.
Yeah. And Christine, do you prefer Twitter or Instagram and why?
I like Twitter. Instagram I find too sort of like superficial and it has no substance. That’s my personal opinion. I prefer Twitter. I love seeing the, the back and forth on Twitter and I love seeing the…
It’s kind of entertaining. I see these people that have this, especially in STEM will go there. You know, these people, they have amazing qualifications, amazing expertise. And then they’re like, “Oh look, there’s my dog jumping through the flowers”. I’m like…
I love it. Yeah, Instagram’s too superficial and too blurgh for me, yeah.
Gee, I think you’re talking about my husband when you’re talking about someone with a lot of science credentials who constantly shares videos and photos of our dog.
Say no more, say no more. OK, I feel like the next question’s actually going to be quite high pressure for you Christine, given that you talked about being a comedian.
We would like to know what is your favourite science related joke or movie or book?
So our listeners couldn’t, our listeners couldn’t see that Christine just put on a face of extreme distress and mouthed the words “Oh my God”. You couldn’t see that but we could.
Yeah. Oh you could.
Favourite book. Oh my gosh. Would have to be one of my exercise science books to be honest.
Oh we love it. We’re nerds here. Michael is also an exercise scientist. So you know, you’re right at home.
I love it. Yeah, don’t really do science jokes, so that’s pretty bad. So I don’t have any of those to tell. But my favourite, I guess my favourite science book will probably have to be still my old school exercise science book. Yeah, I still got it. I’ve still got it here, even shifting countries and it’s quite a few years later, I still got it.
Love it, love it.
Oh my gosh.
Yeah, it’s great ’cause it’s like the first time you know, you get to university and you’re like people can study this? Exercise science? That’s actually a thing where people write textbooks about it? And then yeah, yeah. I so… I completely hear you.
So last question. You’ve given us some great advice Christine already. But if you had to pick your very top tip for effective communication, what would it be?
To absolutely be yourself. Because when you are so much more yourself you come across with certainty, you speak with just so much more certainty. You write with more certainty and you are totally aligned with who you’re being and what you’re expressing and sharing in your communication. And people hear it. They see it and they feel it.
Hear hear, Christine. That is just such good advice. And I’m so pleased that now every time we say that to our students, we say it’s not just us, don’t just listen to us, listen to this podcast and you’ll hear somebody else say it as well. Oh, but look, thank you so much.
Thanks Christine, and I’m going to run out now and buy myself a funky pair of glasses and some you know some, some more trendy clothes. Yeah, really try and be, be myself a bit more in work.
Yeah and massive thanks from me Christine. We… Michael and I are big on fun. One of the reasons why we love collaborating on this podcast is because we both really enjoy having fun.
And to speak with you today has just been so enjoyable for us. And obviously we’ve been speaking about some really big difficult topics. But to share with our listeners how those challenges that we all face in life can lead to really important outcomes in believing in ourselves and going out into the world and doing good work, I think that’s just really amazing.
So I hope everyone will be inspired to read your book. So if you haven’t yet secured yourself a copy, it’s called ‘Igniting Resilience: Overcoming the despair of receiving a death sentence’ by Christine Burns. And we’re just so honoured to have time to speak with you today Christine. Thank you so much.
It’s been a pleasure. It’s fun, it’s actually, I think it’s cool. It’s good to see how exactly what we do and what I’ve been through can actually connect so much with communication and science. I think it’s awesome, it’s brilliant. And I love the work that you’re both doing. I think it’s, it’s essential. And so many more people need to listen to this podcast and get on board with them.
We, we won’t argue with you Christine, we won’t…
Can we, can we quote you on that?
Yeah you can.
We already have. It’s already on my socials. So many more people should listen to this podcast. Thanks Christine.
Thanks so much Christine.
It’s brilliant. Thank you so much. It’s been a pleasure. It’s been fun.
Thanks so much for listening. That is a wrap on Season 5. Thank you to our production team, Stephanie Wong and Steven Tang for making things happen behind the scenes. And thanks to you our listener for sticking with us. We absolutely love making these episodes.
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