When my family joined the Advanced Training Institute (ATI), I had just graduated from college with a bachelor’s degree in English. I was working as the secretary for a local Christian talk radio station and was trying to figure out what to do with my life. Fact is, I wasn’t really sure what I wanted to do with that degree. I had thought perhaps I would go on for a terminal degree and become a college professor, but money was a problem. I enjoyed editing and proofreading, but I wasn’t sure how I would break into those fields without moving to New York or Chicago — and I didn’t really want to leave my hometown.
And I needed work experience. Like most college graduates in the early 90s, I had a limited resume. I’d done my time at a fast food joint and a local supermarket, and I’d had a short stint at a non-profit that took advantage of my naïveté and inexperience. I was gaining experience fast at the radio station and enjoyed the work. There was one problem at the station: there was an ambitious employee who had her sights set on taking over, and I was in her way. I’m ashamed to say that she managed to run me off.
But my dad had spoken to someone at the Institute in Basic Life Principles (IBLP) — the parent organization from which ATI was created — and told them of my editing and writing ability. I was invited to come to IBLP headquarters in Oak Brook, Illinois, as staff. This seemed like a great opportunity for me to explore a career I’d always been interested in, while providing a little bit of a safety net in case it didn’t work out. But it would prove to be one of the most disastrous career decisions I could have made.
The first problem, though I would not recognize it as such for several months, was that IBLP’s definition of “staff” and my dad’s definition (and mine) were radically different. Despite the fact that I was 25, I was treated like the teenage apprenticeship students. I was put into a house with several younger girls, moved to other lodgings without warning or consent, expected to ask permission to leave campus (even though I had my own car), and so on. I was paid minimum wage, or just barely above it — a pay level that was not commensurate with my education, skills, or experience. I did not have health insurance until my father intervened. I wasn’t even allowed to choose what church I would go to — I had to choose from a specific list of “approved” churches, many of which were half an hour or more away from the campus. I had little free time and was not allowed to date or go shopping — or any of the other activities that a normal 25-year-old Christian woman might be expected to engage in. None of these things is really what one expects when one joins the staff of an organization. (And some of them came back to haunt me years later, when a prospective employer was reviewing my resume and salary history.)
The second problem was that “editing” at IBLP was very different from what it would have been at a traditional publishing house. I came to IBLP with extensive experience, having run my own typing and editing business while in college. But I did not have the experience to know that traditional editing and IBLP editing were worlds apart, and I quickly became both bored and frustrated. Most of what I did was proofreading or copyediting. The senior editor had some ideas that were just wrong. I pretty much swallowed my objections and did things her way — she was in authority, after all — but I was miserable. I’m a people person, and I was shut up in a room all day with very little interaction with other people. All of my editing decisions were subject to revision by someone guided by personal taste rather than authoritative usage manuals. Between the isolation and the suppression of my innate abilities, I was miserable. Had I interned at a traditional publishing house, today I would probably be a very happy editor with an impressive portfolio to my credit. As it is, I thought, “Ugh! I hate this!” and leaped at my first opportunity to get out.
When the position of secretary to the department director unexpectedly opened up, I grabbed it. And I enjoyed the work. But the atmosphere and teachings of ATI and IBLP are not conducive to learning the political and relational skills needed for working in the adult corporate world. I learned some bad habits and attitudes that seriously crippled me when I moved from being a secretary in the rarefied climate of IBLP to the real world.
Here are some of the things that I learned as an IBLP employee that I had to later, painfully, unlearn as an employee in the corporate world.
- Ask permission. As Dr. Lois Frankel says in Nice Girls Don’t Get the Corner Office, when a person asks for permission, “she diminishes her stature and relegates herself to the position of a child.” Children ask permission. Employers don’t want children working for them. They want adults who are confident and who can make decisions.
- Don’t make decisions on your own. Part of this relates to asking permission. Part of it, however, relates to not making mistakes. If you refused to take final responsibility for a decision, then you were not the one in trouble if something went wrong. And since there was always a spiritual aspect to any correction of mistakes at IBLP, you did not want to be the one in trouble. So you passed even trivial decisions up the line to the highest possible level.
- Check and re-check until a project is perfect before you release it. The expectation of perfection and the fear of severe repercussions for mistakes fed my already problematic perfectionism until I was nearly paralysed with fear when I had to let go of a project. Nothing was ever perfect enough. In addition, some of my employers have complained that they don’t need, or want, perfection. They are perfectly happy with “good enough.” And they would very much like for me to learn when “good enough” is good enough, so that I don’t wear myself out striving for unnecessary perfection. (This one really shocked me. Who would have thought that you could be reprimanded or penalized for always turning in perfect work? But perfection slows you down, and sometimes fast and imperfect is, apparently, preferable.)
- Authority is always right. That’s just not true. Ever. Authority may be right. But there is no one in authority who never makes mistakes. And a good leader is always open to question and input. It is only a poor, insecure leader who objects to being asked “why” or who resists suggestions for improving either processes or morale.
- Let other people praise you; never “toot your own horn.” This simply does not work in the business world. If you don’t toot your own horn, you will never get ahead, other people will take credit for your work, and you will not be recognized as a valuable and contributing member of the corporate team.
- No means no. Despite the teachings on the “wise appeal,” the overriding message that one got in working at IBLP and ATI training centers was that once you got an answer, that was it. No was no. Don’t ask again. Several employers have told me that one of my most frustrating habits is not pushing back when something is important to me or when I get additional information that might change their decision.
- “I am here to make you successful.” I will never forget the first (and last) time I actually said this to a boss. He was embarrassed and stunned. Had no idea what to say. In his eyes, I was there to do whatever work he needed done. His success, or lack thereof, was his own concern.
- Don’t watch the clock. Work until the job is done. The problem is that when you are an hourly employee, they want you to watch the clock, because, most of the time, they would rather you finished the job tomorrow and clocked out on time, so that they don’t have to pay you overtime. And if you are salaried and you don’t watch the clock, you can easily end up being taken advantage of, especially if you enjoy the work you are doing. I have been in positions where I worked 80 hours in a week with no extra compensation “because you are salaried and that’s what it took to get the job done.”
- People are more important than projects. Not if the project has a deadline they aren’t.
- Character is more important than skills. Not if you want to keep your job for more than a week or two. I remember another former ATI student who struggled to get and keep a job in the “real” world after marrying and leaving the program. He said, “Character may get me in the door, but when my skills don’t match their needs, character won’t keep them from kicking me out.”
- Integrity and following the rules will get you noticed. Okay, yeah, they will get you noticed. But often for the wrong reason. For example, it is against the law for a notary to notarize a document unless the signatory is present; in some states, it’s a felony. Several of my supervisors have been incensed when I refused to notarize documents that their spouse signed and sent to the office to be notarized. I’m known as “overly conscientious” about notarizing. It’s a standing “joke” at the office — but there is a sharp barb of irritation nestled in that joke.
- Always wear a smile. There is, as The Preacher said, a time for everything. And there is a time to smile and a time not to smile. Inappropriate smiling sends a wrong message and can confuse the people you’re talking to. If you’re firing someone or trying to get your boss to take your ideas seriously, it’s not a time for a smile.
These are only a handful of the wrong lessons that I learned during my time working for IBLP. They have seriously hampered my ability to advance in my career — and even if it’s not the career I originally wanted, it would be nice if I could have advanced at the normal rate, and without the heartache, confusion, and bewilderment that I endured as I had to unlearn the lessons that working at IBLP taught me about how the world of business supposedly worked.