Advice from the Grave
A lesson in humility from Ettore Barbatelli.
While perusing the newspaper last summer, a death notice caught my eye. Ettore “Barb” Barbatelli had passed on. Interesting guy this Barb, as he was known to his family and close friends. Yale graduate; founder, president and chairman of a company called Valuation Research Corp.; one-time board member of Johnson Controls Inc., Simplicity Manufacturing Inc. and numerous non-profit organizations. Supporter of the arts and sciences was Barb.
His obituary was notable to me not because of his success in life. Accomplished business people regularly pass away without warranting a magazine column in a trade publication. Instead, I stopped at the lengthy epitaph because, nearly a quarter century before his passing, unknowingly and indirectly, Barbatelli had given me one of the most insightful pieces of advice I have ever received.
At that time, and perhaps still today, the newspaper of the Marquette University School of Business was known as The General Ledger. Really, my fellow accounting, marketing and finance students? We couldn’t come up with a more creative name for our paper than that? At any rate, the late 1980s found me as that stately publication’s editor, responsible for identifying story opportunities, dolling them out to a team of reporters largely comprised of my roommates and college friends, and using what little I had managed to retain from my grammar classes to ensure that the stories were fit to print.
Back to Barb, a successful Milwaukee entrepreneur, whose Valuation Research provided a wide variety of advisory services, including the valuation of tangible and intangible assets. From time to time, the business school invited individuals like Barbatelli to speak to interested members of the student body and offer insights on business, entrepreneurship and life skills in general. So it was that my path crossed Barbatelli’s when, as part of his visit to the business school, I arranged to have one of The Ledger’s reporters interview him after his speech.
A reporter named David Pope posed to Barbatelli a series of fairly forgettable questions—but for one. Pope’s final and intriguing query elicited a response that has stuck with me all these years. His concluding question for Barbatelli? “What personality traits are most absent in young people today?”
Barbatelli took mere seconds to derive his answer, brilliant both in its simplicity and its wisdom. The shortest-possible answer—just one word. In answer to the question of what trait was most absent among our youth, Barbatelli stated:
Humility is defined simply as a modest or low view of one’s own importance. Humbleness.
His point was a great one. I’m never impressed by a boaster. If someone has managed a level of financial or personal success in life, I will figure that out for myself, I don’t need that person to say so. Further, I generally assume that those who go out of their way to tell or insinuate how successful they have been are either faking it (I refer to these folks as “Big hat, no cattle”), or suffer from an insecurity complex and a lack of self-confidence.
I have always been much more impressed by the winner who nonchalantly goes about his business and lets the results speak for themselves. For instance, I am well-familiar with the members of a finishing operation in northern Kentucky who pursue this practice. Their plant is well-lit and immaculate. They have refined their finishing process such that every minute variation is hunted down and eliminated. Their quality expectations are nearly unparalleled, and yet their reject rates are at world-class levels. They hold almost no work in process inventory either before or after the paint line, and have worked with their packaging department to understand how it wants to receive parts from paint, and with the upstream fabrication and weld departments to ensure that parts are received from those departments in a fashion that eliminates handling and wasted motion. Key metrics are reported throughout the plant and are always current. Safety is paramount and the company’s recordable incidents almost nil. I could go on.
As amazing as this team is though, there is something that astonishes me even more than its progressive, forward thinking and action-oriented approach. What really impresses —to the point of being a little bizarre—is that at the end of every one of my visits the team members are almost apologetic as to how much they still have to do. They project themselves as being slightly embarrassed by their lack of progress, even though after visiting more than 500 paint, powder coat and e-coat operations I am not sure I have ever seen any better. Humility in action.
My message could end here. As Barbatelli implied, we should all try to be a little more humble and a little less boastful in the shadow of our own successes, whatever they may be. My point could end here, but it doesn’t.
Rather, my argument goes one significant step further. Is it possible that the final point is not that teams like the one described above are humble in spite of their success, but rather that they are successful because they are humble?
In humility we accept that we do not have all of the answers. In humility we are open to the possibility that another operation may do something better than we do, and in humility we seek to learn from them. In humility we recognize that, as good as we are today, we can always get better, and in humility we never stop improving.
Humble in spite of our success? No! We succeed because we are humble.
So here’s to you, Ettore Barbatelli. Notwithstanding your great accomplishments, humble in death as you were in life. And thank you for 25-year-old advice that I will do my best to follow for another 25 years or more.
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