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The winning position

Careers profile

When Keith Clarke joined Atkins as chief executive in October 2003, one of the first things he found was a staff memo from the company's founder Sir William Atkins.

It talked about 'encouraging individuals to be individuals'. The memo may be decades old, but its sentiment is just as true today.

'We want to find and encourage unusual people with unusual skills, ' says Clarke.

'Our challenge is to create an environment where people are allowed to be difficult - because that's where you get excellence.'

He is hoping to develop a culture in which people are 'comfortable with being uncomfortable', as they respond to the changing needs of their clients.

Large international companies in other sectors are famed for wanting staff to conform to a standard, but Clarke's vision for Atkins is just the opposite. 'We don't want to make you dull, ' he says. 'It should be about developing the talents we've got.'

He says the company's size is an advantage - partly because he believes the global economy will force consolidation, and consultancies will have to be large to survive - but also because of the opportunities this affords to staff.

'You can come and run a huge business in Atkins and still be relatively junior, ' he explains.

'You've also got the opportunity to move laterally to develop your career.

'Being an organisation this size also means we can bring in talent and move people around more easily than a small company, ' he adds.

Clarke accepts that Atkins may have lost sight of its core skills in recent years, but says it is now proud to stand by the quality of its planning, designing and engineering skills. 'What we do is about making clients' capital programmes easier, ' he explains.

'It's all about people building things.

What's the most risky thing for any business?

Their capital plan. That's our job - making their capital plans more predictable.

'And, ' he continues, 'that's really interesting.

These days everybody's capital plan needs to be really efficient, because the government needs to get every road hospital or school cheaper. It's a challenge for engineers and architects and cost planners because they have got to express their opinions more clearly and be able to justify and interpret things.'

His aim is to make Atkins 'better than average' in every aspect of its activities - from the projects and clients it works with to the training, R&D and support within the company. 'We like winning, and we like doing the things other people can't do, ' he says.

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