Career profile: Niall Cluley, partner & director of consulting, Dragonfish

Written by
Sarah Clark

25 Nov 2016

25 Nov 2016 • by Sarah Clark

Basic details

CV in brief:

  • 2016-present: Partner & director of consulting, Dragonfish
  • 2014-2016: Global HR director, Fitness First Group
  • 2010-2013: Global head of talent & development, Fitness First Group
  • 2009-2010: UK learning & development manager, Vodafone
  • 2006-2009: Projects director, Leaps & Bounds Consultancy

A day in the life

Tell us about your job and organisation

Dragonfish is a culture and engagement consultancy. We help senior leaders of large organisations to drive business and customer growth by transforming the internal performance of their company.

My role at Dragonfish is all about developing the consultancy’s capabilities and reputation amongst business leaders. As part of this I’ll be focusing on developing a blueprint for products and skills that deliver.

Who do you report into?

Richard Webley, MD, Dragonfish.

Tell us about your team

We have an incredibly talented team at Dragonfish who bring very diverse skills, backgrounds and experiences to the role.

I have the privilege of working closely with our three managing partners and connections director who are superb practitioners and deliver top-notch consultancy to clients. We also have a strong creative, digital and project management team that collaborate brilliantly to help deliver best in class work for clients.

What is the most rewarding part of your role?

Helping organisations dig down and fully understand the problems they’re solving. When you’re facing a challenge within your own organisation, an outside perspective can be invaluable. Working with our clients to map out great change programmes in simple and practical ways that overcome these challenges and deliver great results are deeply rewarding.

On top of that, the role is also about learning, exploring and having great fun with clients along the way. We develop strong relationships with our clients and always strive to deliver great results.

What is the most challenging part of the role?

One of the biggest, and most important, elements of my role is also to understand the challenges facing clients right now, both internally and externally. The commercial landscape is changing rapidly and this will be on the minds of all business leaders – as consultants it’s vital that we are as attuned to that as they are.

Then there’s the awareness and understanding about culture and performance. Senior executives and functional leaders are often juggling so many dynamics and challenges that taking time to understand, align and then manage and optimise their cultures just doesn't get the time and attention it deserves. Historically this has been an area where there are many intangibles that make it hard to show how culture truly links to performance. My role is to help leaders and managers across functions with how their unique culture and performance are linked.  

What does a typical day look like for you?

I start the day early with a morning run or exercise of some form – and of course, if it’s a visit to the gym, it’ll be Fitness First! I’ve always been very active and exercise is a key part of my day, if I’m not on dry land you’ll find me in the water surfing or paddle boarding.

I eat breakfast with the kids most days and aim to start work by 7:30/8am.

Planning out the day and sorting out the admin is usually my first port of call, although sometimes I’ll get a research project underway first thing to hit the ground running. The day is filled with a mix of internal and external meetings, working with clients on projects and checking in with the team.

Why did you choose your current organisation to work for?

I'm curious by nature, love learning and enjoy a balance between thinking, creating and delivering effective solutions. I believe that Dragonfish has this in its DNA already, along with some great values that I'm keen to be a part of, to nurture and promote.

When we work together as a team, there is great potential to help more ambitious organisations crack their culture code and create an environment that helps the business and its people deliver on their aspirations.

Perks and downsides of your role?

It’s always heart-warming to see people in organisations discover their potential, succeed and move on. The chance to explore and learn about new things, to benchmark and outperform your personal best and the great variety the role provides are some of the best perks.

I do sometimes miss being part of a team that sees it through to delivery, knowing that there are always other things I could do to help. But sometimes you have a job to do in one particular area and you’ve got to focus on what is in front of you.

What skills are essential for the role you’re in?

A curious mind-set, great questioning skills, effective research abilities and the confidence to challenge organisations in a respectful way. You have to be able to see things from different perspectives – our job is about highlighting opportunities for meaningful change.

Understanding the dynamics and politics of organisational structures and networks is also important. Above all you need to be mindful as to the impact of the changes you’ve been hired to deliver on clients and their prospects.

Career path

How did you get to where you are now?

Starting out, I followed a passion for performance coaching and development. In my late-teens, early twenties I was part of the British sailing team and it was there that I discovered the importance of great goal-setting and the effect of great coaching on my own performance.

I realised early on that I could follow my own passion for learning while helping others to progress and learn at the same time. The desire to develop my abilities has driven the choices I have made and what I have done in my career ever since. I love variety and I love making a difference to people’s lives.

What were your favourite subjects in school?

Geography, PE and Art. I then went to do a postgraduate course in Management Studies at Putteridge Bury Business School.

I was also involved in a 12-month programme in leadership with the EFQM (the European Foundation for Quality Management) in Brussels, which was a fantastic learning experience.

What was your first job?

My first proper job was running an activity centre in Milton Keynes. I chose to work there because it was the largest water sports centre in the UK (at the time), and I enjoyed the chance to get hands-on operational experience while leading and developing large teams.

Have you followed the career path you set out to?

Yes – definitely.

What challenges have you faced along the way? How did you overcome them?

When your career is not conventional, people sometimes don’t know how to benchmark your experiences. It can be challenging to head hunters in particular, to understand why I have made the choices I have made. But that comes with the territory. And there are plenty of people who are willing to look at your talents and qualities for what they are.

Having a more varied and diverse career path is going to become much more common and important in the future. You do need to prepare yourself for changes in your work and career, even if some recruiters can be more conventional.

What’s the craziest thing you’ve done to land a job?

I once had to run an impromptu outdoors team building session for a group of accountants as part of a job interview.

What has been the proudest moment of your career so far?

Becoming global HR director for Fitness First at such a critical time in its transformation. It was an incredible chance to make a real impact on so many people and I enjoyed the role immensely.

Do you have any career regrets?

I don’t. You make judgement at the time based on where you are and your circumstances. I always listen to my head, but follow my heart.

What advice would you offer to others who are looking to get to where you are now?

Follow your passion and be open minded about where you can gain the right experiences to develop your career while doing something you love is a firm mantra of mine.

Spend time really thinking about what drives you and the difference you want to be making to people’s lives. Think about what type of work you want to be doing. Too many people plan their career around a job title – and too many others suggest it. Obsessing about job titles can get in the way of what you really want to be achieving. If you are good at what you do and respected for it, you’ll succeed. A job title won’t make you happy, but a good, rewarding and fulfilling career will.

What advice would you give to your 22-year-old self?

Slow down. Spend more time thinking about how to solve problems rather than jumping in straight away to solve them. Don’t take things so personally. Embrace all points of view and be open minded. Don’t be afraid to be ambitious and always remember to enjoy the ride.


  • App: WindGuru – to keep checking in with my passions for windsurfing and kitesurfing. It reminds me that the weather is always moving and that there’ll always be another opportunity to get out on the water – something I love to do
  • TV show: Vikings – it shows all sides of human nature, ingenuity, and the amazing achievements of people throughout time. It’s got all the ingredients of great drama
  • Band: Biffy Clyro – Scottish, and just a great band!
  • Song: Imagine Dragons, Radioactive – an uplifting track from a great time in my life
  • Book: Touching the Void by Joe Simpson – just inspirational
  • Sports team: Scotland Rugby Team – always an example of how far teams can get with passion and a clear goal
  • Thing to do on a Friday night: Drinking Sundowners [cocktails] on the beach or in the mountains as the sun goes down
  • Place to eat: South Deep Café, a hidden gem in Poole
  • Holiday spot: Chamonix, French Alps – challenging conditions, inspiring scenery
  • Piece of advice you’ve been given: I have two: “In business it’s a great idea to be respected first and liked second.” And “Always remember to focus on the problem you’re solving.” – they both concentrate the mind on making a difference.


  • Coffee or tea? Coffee
  • Jam or marmalade? Jam
  • The Beatles or The Rolling Stones? The Rolling Stones
  • Mac or PC? Mac
  • The Guardian or The Times? The Times
  • BBC or ITV? BBC
  • M&S or Waitrose? M&S
  • Morning or night? Night
  • Rain or snow? Snow
  • Sweet or savoury? Sweet