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Aiming high

Working lives - As far as possible, Atkins director Iva Hui likes her life to be in a state of endless flux.

What I already know isn't what makes me get up in the morning. It's what I can learn that's important, ' says Atkins director Iva Hui.

Hui's thirst for knowledge translates into an appetite for challenge that has launched her on a trial-by-fire career path.

Her most scorching experience to date came three years ago, 24 months after joining Atkins as a building services engineer, when she took control of the consultant's London design office. Colleagues left in droves.

'When I took over the division it shrank very quickly, which was very disconcerting. I think many people found me terrible to work for - I set very clear standards, and constantly want to improve, which can probably be difficult to live with, ' comments Hui.

She feels the responsibility of stemming the flow and recruiting new staff has aged her 'quite a bit'. At 36, she has clocked up some experiences that might be expected only of managers aged 45 or 50, she says.

But Hui's department has bounced back beyond its former size and, now 60 strong, is growing rapidly. 'We've now got good retention rates, ' she reassures. And she feels that her team shares and reflects the standards she sets herself. 'I've created a really excellent team, ' Hui boasts. She has done this by setting her expectations high and 'not letting them drop to fit external circumstances'.

'I've recruited every member of my team over the last two years, and have done that by selling my vision. My team has been built by selling personal relationships, ' she says.

As a result, she says, it is in peak job-winning condition. 'It's important to belong to a firm that has some sort of vision, but at the end of the day you are selling individuals and their ability to make things happen.' Hui appears supremely confident. Yet she does not come across as arrogant. She says that every four to five years she takes stock of her career and sets an objective. Inevitably setbacks are encountered, but 'what matters is how fast you can pull it back together'.

Hui was sponsored through a degree in building services engineering at Oxford by Arup, and stayed with Arup for four years following her graduation.

'I spent a lot of time on site and learned massively from the way people collaborate to make construction happen. I learned about relationships; what causes delays; ways of resolving things.' But Hui felt too much like a cog in Arup's machinery. 'I wanted more of a personal profile, ' and she joined building services firm Roger Preston.

Over the next four years Hui was involved with architects like Sir Norman Foster, preparing concept designs, and got to travel the world.

'I got involved in learning about facades, thermal efficiencies, and in making the business case for buildings. It was very hands on, which suited me.' Her career at Preston could have continued indefinitely in a similar vein, but she wanted the variety of experience offered only by far larger consultancies.

Specifically, she wanted management experience.

'At Atkins, the key thing is opportunity. It's an unusual company because it is so large and there is so much going on.

In some ways its recent troubles [with its accounting system and the resulting impact on business] has helped create an environment where people are keen to move forward. What attracted me to the firm was that free scope.' Hui says that despite Atkins' size 'very little is dictated from headquarters. We set our own agendas'. Present mentor Michael Byrne has played an important role in developing Hui's strategic thinking skills, she says.

Over the next year or two, Hui's agenda is to grow her division's international workload, punching into markets where she is already experiencing some success - the Middle East and Far East. This is as much a personal objective as a corporate one.

'I've always been very competitive and always wanted to be best. If I'm given a challenge I want to win.' Hui's other aim is to smash through the construction industry's glass ceiling - the limit to promotion still encountered by most women. Atkins chief executive Keith Clarke has vowed to remove it within the company, and Hui is determined to test it within the next two years.

'I'm not after Keith Clarke's job yet, but it's good to know that it could be attainable.'

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