The Challenger

BI’s Ide Katrine Birkeland is a programme director who likes making people sweat.

Text and photo: Geir Anders Rybakken Ørslien 
“Everything I’m fond of involves communicating,” Ide Katrine Birkeland says. 

“The act of giving people an experience – whether this involves insight, challenges, mastering something or just feeling a little happier. It’s the common thread connecting everything I do.” 
Twenty-four hours before she says this, I observe two women waiting outside a spinning room at SATS Storo. It’s almost 11 am on a Tuesday morning in Oslo and two sweatsuit-clad women are talking softly between glass wallsw and barbells.  

“Have you ever taken a lesson with her before?” one of them asks. 
No, the other woman hasn’t. 
“She’s excellent, very inspiring. You’ve got something to look forward to!” 

A few minutes later, Ide Katrine Birkeland – nicknamed Kine – turns up the music in front of a room of ready-to-spin cyclists. She has had a contract as a spinning, yoga and dance hall instructor for 21 years.

Ide Katrine Birkeland 3

Versatile experience 

What few participants know is that the inspiring spinning instructor also has a PhD in organisational psychology and spends the rest of her workweek as Academic Programme Director for Educational Leadership at BI, where she is also an associate professor in the Department of Communication and Culture. 
Nor do the spinning cyclists – who are now standing up to cycle up an arduous uphill – know that the trainer has experience as a sports psychologist and as a DJ in the collective Oh Mama Crew. The day after the spinning lesson, Birkeland reveals how all of this follows a pattern that emerged already when she was in lower secondary school.  
“I probably stood out and appreciated an interested audience. But I paid the price, because I was bullied a lot for having such a high profile. It’s something you probably never get over, because I definitely cared about what others thought and felt that adversity was hard. Still, I was drawn to situations that I could excel in and that were meaningful, whether this was discussions during lessons or dance lessons that I instructed.” 
As a young woman, Kine liked challenges and going to school. In a basic college course in sports at Sogndal, she discovered sports psychology. What motivates people to do their very best? She loved the subject. She earned a master’s degree at the Norwegian School of Sport Sciences, specialising in elite athletes. 

"I definitely cared about what others thought and felt that adversity was hard. Still, I was drawn to situations that I could excel in and that were meaningful."

Ide Kathrine (Kine) Birkeland

Meaning rather than prestige 

“I’ve never been the ambitious type, but I pursue whatever feels meaningful and I give it everything I’ve got. It was fun, and it was meaningful. But when I was involved with elite athletes, I felt like the job was just too narrow. So I got involved in HR and saw that organisational psychology was an interesting way to move on.”  
This prompted her move to BI, where she earned a PhD studying how various types of on-the-job enthusiasm affect job satisfaction and work performance. 
– How did you find BI after a few years of master’s studies somewhere else? 
“It was incredibly interesting, high calibre – but a steep learning curve for me. I had to learn so many new things, none of which overlapped my master’s in sports psychology. So, while I loved being challenged and stimulated by the difficulty of it all, there were also long evening walks where a despairing Kine felt that I couldn’t cope, together with my mother who tried to comfort me.”  
But Kine overcame the challenges one by one and loved the international environment at BI, its rigorous demands – and the opportunities she discovered in the subject. She earned her PhD in 2014. She now specialises in educational leadership in the Executive Education programme at BI in Nydalen. Most of her students are at least thirty and are studying while they pursue an established career because they want to further develop themselves.  
“The actively employed executive students come to us because they’ve got high professional ambitions and are deeply motivated to make the most out of the time they spend studying at BI. Many have already made demanding choices that I personally don’t know whether I could have coped with, and they expect a lot of us who do the teaching and who organise the study programmes. This keeps us on our toes in a good way.”  

"I like doing things that are complex, difficult or outside someone’s comfort zone — and then making it something many people can identify with."

Ide Kathrine (Kine) Birkeland

Likes to challenge principles

What drives you as a teacher?
“Critical reflection, challenging conversations and problem solving – actively challenging someone’s principles to force them to consider whether their principles work the way they think they do. This is large part of my work at BI and it’s deeply rewarding. Not least when I later hear that one of my students managed to change the way he does things and has improved his relationships with colleagues and partners. That’s why people come here: to create change.”

Kine Birkeland doesn’t come from a family with academic traditions, and she is not someone who always has to stand out.

“But whether I’m a lecturer, a spinning instructor or a DJ, I’m clearly empowered by these settings: I’m the one giving someone something. They come to me with an expectation that I have to live up to in the best possible way. That’s a role I like!”

“Because the experience is meaningful and educational. And because I like doing things that are complex, difficult or outside someone’s comfort zone — and then making it something many people can identify with. I love having novices in my classes, or people who’ve tried it before and hated it. Then my challenge becomes to give them new insight, be it leadership, psychology or music. Playing a new, familiar and commercial version of a song on the dance floor, and then suddenly switching to the original version from which the sample is taken – and giving someone an Aha! moment or arousing their curiosity.”

You both look and sound like someone who is bubbling with energy. Where does it come from?
“I understand that it may look like that, but my life is no different than anyone else. I’ve been on sick leave twice because life was so awful, and I had to step back. And in my opinion, there are so many people who are much better at doing what I do than I am. And even though I have roles that give me a high profile on the job, I don’t work more than usual.”

But you do work in an environment with many of Norway’s cleverest experts?
“That may be true, but that doesn’t make us superhuman. First and foremost, we’re concerned with doing things as well as we can, because we love what we do.”