When Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor started out in the civil service 32 years ago, she never imagined that one day she would be in the number two position as chief secretary of Hong Kong.

"I always wanted to work in the public sector, so when I was about to graduate from the University of Hong Kong 32 years ago, and when peers started to apply for different types of jobs, I only applied for a job in the civil service - nothing else," says Lam, who was appointed chief secretary by new Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying on July 1. "I count myself very fortunate to be given this opportunity."

Lam's ability to serve and lead was apparent while at secondary school, where as head girl she was involved in social services voluntary work. She later changed her university degree from social work to sociology to help her understand society.

Surprisingly, Lam was involved with the student union and was an activist vying for such causes as the government's handling of the Yau Ma Tei boatpeople, who were facing a difficult situation.

"It is quite strange for someone who has that kind of experience to want to work within the government," Lam says. "In fact, some of my peers and friends at university have ended up being very active politicians."

But Lam understood that instead of criticising the government, she could work within the establishment to help bring about change. "I respect civil society, people working outside continuously putting government under checks and balances but, at the end of the day, you need somebody within the administration to take things forward," she says.

Since joining the civil service, Lam has had lead roles in various departments. She was director of social welfare from 2000 to 2003 before becoming permanent secretary for housing, planning and lands. She was also director-general of the Hong Kong Economic and Trade Office in London for two years. On her return to Hong Kong in 2006, she became permanent secretary for home affairs before a stint as secretary for development.

Being a mother and having a career required discipline, especially when her two boys were younger.

"I took this balancing act very seriously. I almost never went out on official dinners. I turned down dinner invitations from major charity groups," Lam says.

"I was very disciplined, striking a balance just to make sure that I was at home to have meals with my children. In fact, sometimes I had to cook as I never engaged a domestic maid. I wanted my kids to be brought up by myself and to feel that mum was around to look after their nitty gritty. That was a tough period, but it requires a very supportive and very caring husband who will share the burdens."

Her sons are now at university in Britain, where her husband is spending his retirement. For the future Lam is keen to alleviate poverty and enthusiastic about two initiatives rolled out by the new administration: universal access, which provides better access for handicapped and elderly people, and a project to beautify the hawker and open-air markets and make them safe.