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Welcome to helpful stress

They come to us to acquire skills, to gain academic credits for their degree. I made reference to one of my interns earlier this week. And I want to devote today's diary to thoughts about the many who have assisted me in our Parliament.

For the most part, it is US students aged between eighteen and twenty-five who come to extend their knowledge and burnish their CV.

Many will have been interns in their State legislatures. Some have made it to the Federal Senate or House of Representatives. Their tales of their time there show a very marked difference from our environment. Only rarely will they have even met their nominal boss. One spoke of a Senator's team being about seventy people. The dynamics of Holyrood where our allowances provide for us to employ three people to cover Parliament and Constituency is clearly very, very different.

Having a big team of seventy is no excuse for its leader not meeting and listening to each and every one.

When I ran big teams, much bigger than seventy, in my professional life before politics, I regularly did "managing by walking about". And tried to interact with as many of my staff as possible when doing so. If they didn't understand my priorities, we were unlikely to see them delivered. And if I didn't create opportunities for them to informally provide me with feedback, I would miss the chance to improve my performance, and they would feel undervalued.

So on the first, sometimes the second, day on the team. I would sit down with the intern. Invariably I would first ask what their objectives were for the internship. I would get a wide variety of responses. Some had a clear vision, occasionally widely adrift from the possible. Others found it difficult to articulate why they were here. Time to reinforce the thought that they must take control of their time with us. We were merely creating the opportunities.

As the heart of my time with an intern, I have something in my mind rather different than I suspect many of my colleagues may do.

While I am sure that they will acquire new skills and knowledge and should gain the academic points that will contribute to their degree, helping them do that is incidental to my main purpose.

We are talking about young folk who are making the transition from a world where they are taught, to a world where they have to take control. We will not be their teachers, mentors and advisors yes, teachers no.

We will help them to become self-sufficient in their learning. To assist them in identifying when they need help, and who will be able to give it to them. And in our small team, we make it clear that they are contributors, not passengers.

The first substantive task, and we always allocate this on that first day for completion within twenty-four, sometimes forty-eight, hours is to write a four-minute speech for me to deliver in a Member's debate.

We explain that I speak at 132 words per minute and that therefore 528 words are required. I say that I need it double spaced in 20-point print on numbered pages. We provide the motion for the debate.

I then go through my short "how to write a speech" talk. And I point them at where they can read, and listen to, my previous speeches.

I tell them that I will not read the speech until ten minutes before I deliver it. But that I need it in my hands one hour before the debate.

I provide no information about what should be in the speech. And none of the background as to why this is being debated in Parliament.

This is as firm an indication as we can give, that we are an environment in which learning can take place, but teaching is in short supply.

We do not want them to simply regurgitate their tutor's lectures. They have to originate their contribution with little input from us.

It's not uncommon for there to be a sharp intake of breath on the part of the intern at this point. Occasionally a question. To which my response will generally be that they have to go away and find out for themselves.

I then talk a very little about me. I say that we shall sit down after I speak, generally the next day and that I expect them to bring forward proper criticism of how I dealt with the debate and with the speech provided by them. That they are an essential observer who can help me to improve my performance. We are a team and be they ever so inexperienced or young, they may well spot something, precisely because at this stage they are almost external, that we no longer notice.

At the end of the post-event wash-up meeting, I make one of the most important points about what they may get of their time with us, which hopefully they will still have in their mind in about in ten or twenty years. They are a young person who, if they are to be as successful as their brains and studies can make possible, will have to manage people older and more experienced than they are. I am a testing ground for developing a new way of managing relationships.

They need to be able to look me in the eye and tell me that I could do better, or even that I got it wrong. Since I solicit criticism, and if need be they should remind me that I did, I have to accept it. I may or may not act upon it, but accept it I must.

At this point, we also introduce them to the "bully list". Like most of us, there some things which only I can do, which creep, seemingly of their own volition, from being on the middle of the desk to the edge where even peripheral vision will struggle to engage with them.

Every person around me is licensed by me to protect me from my administrative shortcomings. And from my disengagement with necessary, but substantially less than favourite, tasks. Hence the "bully list". It has no tangible form but is rather an accepted way of pushing me towards rectitude.

By the end of the first week, almost every single one of my interns has better posture, looking at the world directly in the face, and a happy glint in their eye. And before they leave for the weekend, they are charged with finding the statue of Abraham Lincoln that is less than a mile from our Parliament. There is no time when one is not learning.

They are beginning to learn how to negotiate with people around them, to trade knowledge and experience.

To stop being a student.

Become a self-controlled adult.


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