German-born Bastian Küntzel is probably one of the best communication and leadership trainers in Wroclaw, Poland, where he’s lived for the last decade. His agency, INCONTRO, has clients that include UNESCO, Google, Daimler, IKEA, Global Logic, Credit Suisse and more. When he’s not training, Bastian is a proud dad and his kitchen is equipped with almost every conceivable toy a hobby-chef could wish for.
Growly sat down with Bastian to discuss his work and how he approaches it, some of the challenges he faces, and the inventive way he’s brought his love of cooking into his work.
Let’s start off by having you tell us about INCONTRO.
INCONTRO is essentially me, but not always and not only – so I like to use the royal we, when speaking about INCONTRO. What we do is actually nicely summarized in the sentence: facilitating learning at the intersection of culture, communication and management. This “facilitation” can have different forms: training courses, seminars, retreats, coaching conferences, but at the core is always learning. My background is in intercultural communication but our offer has increased to cover several different areas: Organic Organizations; Human Leadership; Cultural Literacy; Cinematic Program Design; and the Cook-Off.
I think a lot of people working in companies can recognize a lot of things you’ve just listed, but that last one really stands out. What’s the Cook-Off all about?
The Cook-Off is a laboratory to examine things like: how we deal with stress, how we delegate, how we co-ordinate, how we trust and lead, how we follow, how we manage time – all really important facets of working well in a team.
But we put teams into a new environment, one where everyone is new and because of that, we can look at these competences through a new lens and gain a new perspective.
The kitchen is a great place to examine and practice all of these competences because the pressure is high and the results actually matter. After all, you will eat what you’re making and others will eat it too.
Then, when we reflect on what happened and we draw conclusions, we eat the food that the team has cooked. And eating food that has been prepared together is a very deep and primal experience of community and belonging. We see time and time again that people draw really important conclusions that matter for their work and how they collaborate and relate to each other in their teams. It’s really remarkable how much you can bring out and honestly discuss if you’re in an environment that is so different to your normal office.
What were some of the dishes previous teams cooked?
In the standard version one team cooked Italian, the other French. The French dishes included duck a l’Orange, macaroons, and self-made puff pastry for quiches. The Italian dishes included self-made ice-cream and ravioli. But we’ve also made versions with Polish-centric food.
That all sounds great! Speaking of food, could you give us a taste of what your day-to-day looks like?
There never really any day that looks like any other day. On days when I’m with clients, I enter the training room at around 8:00, prepare everything and then run a training until the afternoon, after which I pack up and go home. If this is in another city or another country or another continent, there may be travel days there and back home again.
On days when I’m not running a training with a client, I bring my kids to school in the morning and then return home, have a second breakfast and then either work at the desk in my office in my home or at the dining table. Maybe I’m working from [local cafes]. Maybe I’m going to the gym after dropping the kids off. Maybe I have a meeting in the city or maybe I have to run some errands. I have to prepare offers for new clients or design training material for upcoming trainings. I may have to write invoices or do other paper-work. If my wife also has some time on her hands (she is working independently as well), maybe we’re spending some time together or working next to each other at home or at a cafe. I’ll probably cook myself a nice lunch made up of all the stuff I love to eat and my wife and kids don’t like. In the afternoon I pick up my kids from school again and we go home and spend a nice time together as a family either building Lego or cleaning up a bit and having dinner, which in all likelihood I have cooked as well.
I don’t consider sleeping a bad way to spend my time and I don’t consider spending time with my wife or with my family a non-productive way to spend my time. On the days, when I’m not booked for work with a client, I put effort into being happy and enriching my life with interesting things. I read a lot, currently four books: one business related, one spiritual, one novel and one intellectually stimulating. None of the books, however, are directly related to a specific business project. All of them I read because I feel that having read them, I’m going have a richer brain, which, incidentally, is an important business aspect for me, but it’s also just plainly making me a person I enjoy being.
I’m not a big fan of being busy for the sake of being (or feeling) busy. So far my experience is that when I put a lot of effort into marketing or trying to sell my services, very little comes off it. There are times, of course, when I’m very stressed about not having enough work. But it has stayed true that the best way to get good work is to do good work. It’s slow and it requires faith, and it requires actually doing really good work. After such a long time of doing this work, I have built a strong enough reputation so that work finds its way to me more easily.
What are the challenges you face running INCONTRO?
It’s not that nice when there is little money on the business account, the credit card is maxed out and I’m waiting on a client to finally pay. But that’s always gotten resolved somehow.
Sometimes I wish I had an office to go to that’s not in my house and meet the same people there every day and be able to talk to them. But all that is small stuff in comparison that I get to do what I love to do, what I’m really good at and what uses my talents to the fullest degree.
What are some things you wish you had known before you took on this endeavor?
Nothing. Knowledge grows with time as does confidence. Being independent and wholly responsible for yourself and your own success is a journey and as is the case with all journeys at the start you can’t know what’ll happen along the way. I went from university straight into being my own boss. I’ve never been employed anywhere by anyone. My path was for me without alternative in the most liberating sense of that word.
Taking such a leap, as you did, immediately after university is something a lot of young people might find nerve-wracking. Could you talk about what your philosophy was at the time? Were you afraid? Was there a plan B?
During my last years at University, I was already working occasionally as a free-lance trainer in the European youth work field. So I knew that I could make some money doing this and I also knew many people who did do this full time as their main profession. So I graduated and moved in with my now-wife, actually one of the reasons that we chose Wroclaw was that she could find employment here and we could live in the flat that she owned. This gave me a very safe starting ground, with very little fixed costs. My partner was earning enough to support our basic needs and I was slowly acquiring work that would allow me to earn a little extra for us. I was never afraid and I also never had a plan B. I started with plan A and somehow I’m still on it. That plan, however, never covered what I’m actually doing right now mostly. It slowly and organically grew into what it is today.
In regards to what that plan became, how much of it was based on luck and how much of it was based on creating your own opportunities? Because I’m sensing an almost Zen-like approach to how you think of business…
Hey, I’m sure luck has and had a lot to do with it. I think anyone who’s successful and doesn’t attribute a big chunk of it to luck and their own privilege is fooling themselves. A “Zen-like approach” might be what someone else might describe my way as, but I would never use that word by myself. As soon as you assign labels like that, you’re immediately very close to bullshit territory. Creating my own opportunities, hmm, I’m sure I’ve done that, but again, that implies a causal relation that simply never exits. Opportunities present themselves and then it’s a matter of being there and doing something that is of value.
And when you do that more often than not, more opportunities present themselves, but you can’t really control it.
With my clients, I have a relationship. And you can’t sell a relationship. You also can’t really sell learning or growth or inspiration. You can be a supportive companion on someone’s journey of development, but without their genuine need for learning, there’s not much you can promise them for sure. It’s a two-way relationship that needs to be handled with respect, humility and humanity.
Okay, what advice would I offer someone looking to start their own business?
Do something meaningful and start making money immediately. I personally don’t see any sense in business ideas that don’t improve the world or make a meaningful contribution to the community they are embedded within. All entrepreneurs or business owners that I know, who are truly happy, are happy because their work gives them meaning first of all and money second.
Do you feel like your work has made you a better person?
I don’t know how to answer this. I don’t think it has made me a better person or a worse person. I am who I am with all the good and bad. My work is a part of who I am, not an improvement of me.