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Insights How a talented designer became a formidable bid manager at Atkins

Meet Nicola Fearnley, Senior Proposal Manager at Atkins, a member of the AtkinsRéalis Group. She's a talented designer who has been with us for over 13 years. She enjoys a fast-paced work environment, so it comes as no surprise that she's thrived in our win-work teams.
While bidding is her primary role, Nicola is also the event coordinator for our education sector. She works closely with the sector lead to set out the event strategy and messaging for that year and then rolls it out across our six annual events. Over the last couple of years, Nicola has also been the social value coordinator for a SEND project in Stockport, where she arranges the business's inputs to achieve our commitments. 
Nicola believes that social value should last beyond the delivery of a project. She always looks for opportunities to extend what we do, from partnering with Manchester City of Trees, where our staff volunteer to plant trees and restore woodland, to supporting charity organizations, such as Pure Innovation, with services, including business advice.

Nicola, what keeps you at Atkins?

It might sound cheesy, but it's the people that surround me. I've been so fortunate with the opportunities I've been given over my time at Atkins. It's due to the people who have supported and encouraged me to develop. Don't get me wrong, it's not always been easy, and there have been many moments where I've been pushed out of my comfort zone. But when you have people that believe in you, then with hard work, you can achieve anything. Having a great network that reaches across every part of the organization is so important to help me do my job well. Having access to that knowledge can't be underestimated.

woman in a blue jumper smiling

What do you do in your two roles?

I really like my job because no two days are ever the same. While my main goal is to win work, there are so many elements to the whole process that I can vary what I do each day, so it's always interesting. Don't get me wrong, it can get pressured when a deadline is nearing, but as long as you remain levelheaded and stay focused on the task at hand, then it's a great role. 

I'm fortunate to lead the organizing and running of client events for the education sector. Although they're hard to organize, they're great fun. When everything is in place at a show, and people are in the right place and talking to clients or presenting, then I feel proud of that achievement. 

My bidding role is predominately internally facing, so the events are a great opportunity for me to talk with clients about our projects and the research that we're doing. I love being able to help facilitate the conversation between a client with one of our technical experts when it comes to developing solutions to challenges.

What did you want to be when you left school?

I had no idea what I wanted to do career-wise when I left school. Both my parents worked in finance, and my brother was an academic. I knew that I didn't want to follow in their footsteps, and I probably knew more about what I didn't want to do than what I could do. 

Doing art and being creative at school came easy, and I had a great art teacher who always believed in me. It was probably the subject I chose to do whenever I needed to pick what to pursue at the next level. When you are creative, the career you pursue isn't always that obvious, which was definitely the case for me. 

I was always told, "pick something that interests you and you're good at." That's how I spent five years at University doing a foundation course, a degree, and finally, a Master's in design and art direction. It was a great course that wasn't too rigid in what media we had to use as long as you found a solution to the brief.

I guess I like the freedom to find my own solution to a problem, as both my education and now my job have allowed me to do that. I've realized that it's ok to not have a plan that sets out every step for you. 

"As long as you're surrounded by great people who support you, and you're open to saying yes to opportunities that come your way, you’ll go far in life."

How did someone from a creative background end up in a seemingly unrelated job in the construction industry?

I left University in a recession where the idea of getting a job remotely related to my qualifications was really tricky. But a friend's father worked for Atkins. He pointed me in the direction of some positions advertised at Atkins, one of which was for a bid coordinator, so I applied. 

I was fresh out of University, and my only job experience was from my student job at Toys R Us. It was my first 'real' job interview, and I was so green and naïve and lacked the experience that I didn't get the role. As hard as that was to take at the time, it gave me the kick I needed to keep going. So, I applied for an admin assistant role which I got, and the rest is history! 

I've always known that you need to work hard. Starting as an assistant gave me the opportunity and time to learn the business and where I might fit into Atkins. It gave me a great foundation to work from, and 13 years later, I'm still here!

How does your creativity help you make a difference in your job?

It helps me bridge the gap between our creative designers and practical engineers. When pulling together a proposal, we need to demonstrate so much to the client, from being the safe pair of hands for their project to cutting-edge thinkers who can find solutions they haven't even considered. 

Being creative means that I can take a bid from its first landing on my desk through to it being submitted to a client. What makes me good at my job is my over-organized nature and a tendency to notice every tiny detail. Because of this, I enjoy being a part of the whole bid process, and I only think that my creativity allows me to do this.

Different really does make a difference. We all have traits, experiences and qualifications that are unique to us. When bringing them all together, it can be really powerful.

What is your team environment like?

In my part of the business, there aren't many people that do my job. There was just me covering all of the bids in the north region for a long time. As tough as that was, it taught me so much, from juggling priorities and people and client deadlines to working out how I can effectively work on multiple projects simultaneously. 

Thankfully my team doubled in size, and I have a great colleague that I've worked with for over six years now. My colleague and I are really good friends and have each other's backs when needed. Our role can be highly pressured, especially around deadlines, so you must have someone who understands your role and can be a sounding board. 

While we have similar personalities and 75% of the same skills, we have clear differences that benefit the way we work and what we can offer to the business. I believe that our team shouldn't have exactly the same skills because our little differences have become the strength of the team.

Do you mentor?

While I'm not part of our more formal mentoring process, I've informally mentored bid coordinators in other offices over the last few years. Having been a part of the win-work team in one way or another for a long time, I guess I can be a good sounding board for most scenarios. 

I like to think I can make time for anyone. So, I find that people usually reach out if they need to talk something through with someone who isn't their line manager.

Do you have a mentor?

All of my line managers have been great mentors to me. They've each had different ways of doing things, worked in different sectors and had slightly different roles within the business. So I have learnt so much from them by osmosis. They've all pushed me to achieve things I would never have thought I could do. Without that, I don't think I would have the role I'm in today.

"There are so many knowledgeable and brilliant people in the business that you just need to be aware of them and their conversations and want to be a part of that to develop yourself."

What advice would you give to someone who would LOVE a career at Atkins but comes from a background unrelated to construction or engineering?

I'd say, if you're really passionate about something, then don't let anything stand in your way of achieving it. It might take hard work to get there, but it will be worth it if that's your passion. As corny as that line is, it's true. 

Do your research into where your interests lie within Atkins and start having conversations about it. You can join our Talent Community to read some of our people's articles and thought leadership pieces. Also, listen to relevant podcasts and webinars, and connect with people with similar interests. Arm yourself with as much information as you can, and you can't go wrong. 

We employ so many different people with such varied qualifications. It shows anyone can be a part of our mix, no matter who you are or where you've come from. You just need the drive to be part of the bigger picture in making the world a better place for everyone. We only live once, so do what inspires you and what you would love to do.

Read more about why people want to work skills and qualifications">inside Atkins.