After a number of years involved in the political and public good arenas, including co-founding Women for Europe and Women for Election, Niamh Gallagher is drawing on her experience, determination and decisive nature to transform Drink Aware from what was a successful public information campaign into a not-for-profit organisation with a brand new strategy and remit.
About Niamh Gallagher
Can you tell us a bit about your educational background and early career?
I did European studies at Trinity, majoring in politics and Italian. In my final year I discovered that I adored politics and didn’t want to finish studying it at that point. I graduated in 2004 and went to the London School of Economics where I did a master’s in politics.
After the master’s I decided to stay on in London. What I loved was the fact that there were all these organisations working on political ideas and policy – it wasn’t just party politics. I worked in Demos – a think tank on power and politics – as a researcher for three-and-a-half years and got great experience and exposure.
In 2008, I decided to move back to Ireland. I found it frustrating sometimes at Demos to move rapidly from one project to another – say from disability to education – without the opportunity to push implementation of the policy recommendations that came out of those research projects. Having had that experience, I wanted to work on one issue and try to drive policy change. So I got a job at the Children's Rights Alliance as a policy analyst and developed what is now the ‘Children’s Rights Alliance Annual Report Card to Government’, a way of tracking progress on the commitments Government has made to children in Ireland. As part of that role I chaired a steering group in Brussels, which brought together representatives from more than 20 EU member states and gave me a real feel for how the EU institutions operate.
Meanwhile, I set up the Women for Europe campaign around the second Lisbon Treaty referendum with Michelle O’Donnell Keating. We identified that women wanted to find ways to become more politically active and that gave us the idea for setting up Women for Election, which we started in 2010. A year later we won Social Entrepreneurs Ireland Impact Award, which allowed me to give up my job at the Alliance and focus on Women for Election full time. I did that until the end of 2014 and I’m now a director and Michelle chairs the board.
Why did you do an MBA?
I consider myself to be accidentally in the not-for-profit sector, it wasn’t what I set out to do, and I’ve always considered myself more commercially or politically focused. I was nearly 10 years in the sector when I decided that to keep learning and progressing I needed to do something else. I also found myself in a leadership position in an organisation and realised that do that well – regardless of the sector – I needed to develop additional skills. I thought the MBA could help me broaden my horizons to possibly move beyond the not-for-profit sector and, meanwhile, could also help me run my organisation really well within the sector.
For me, the MBA has given me the skills I need to lead an organisation. It demystified those areas that were new to me, like financial accounting, human resources and organisational behaviour. Now, I’m confident asking questions, I know what I don’t know, and I use the practical things I learned on the MBA every day.
Tell us a bit about your new role
I’ve been appointed CEO of Drink Aware and was brought on-board with a change agenda. Drink Aware is a well-known brand and a successful consumer campaign that has been running for nearly 10 years. Now, the challenge is to move it to its next stage: from raising awareness to driving behaviour change in relation to alcohol consumption. My job has been to set up a new governance structure, write a strategy, develop a collaborative agreement with the UK Drinkaware Trust, hire a team that can deliver the strategy and ultimately relaunch the organisation with a new focus, ambition and remit.
Drink Aware operates in a dynamic environment; there is huge drive to address the problem of alcohol misuse in Ireland, and lots of people and organisations playing different and complementary roles. What we’re seeking to do is work with others to achieve a shared aim.
What is your leadership style?
I don’t have a deliberate style. I learnt a lot about leadership on the MBA and I’m aware of lots of styles. I think you need to apply different styles to different situations and I like to think I do that and I draw on the learnings I have, but I wouldn’t define myself in a particular way. I do feel strongly that in the team I work with I give people space to develop their own leadership. It’s important that you have people at different levels who demonstrate leadership every day.
What is your philosophy in business and in life?
It’s very basic – do what you say you will do. It’s so important that people know they can rely on you and that you know that when you sign up to something that you will deliver.
Who or what are your biggest influences?
I'm not a person who gets inspired by people who are distant from me. For me, my greatest influences are close to home. There are three I’d mention. One is my mum, who always bred a determination in me and a sense that if you want something, go out there and ask for it and you’re responsible for achieving your own success.
Another is my cousin Caoilfhionn who was just enough older than me to have been able to provide me with some direction. When I was thinking of going to college, my cousin, who was in UCD studying law at the time, encouraged me to do European studies in Trinity. When I was thinking about a master’s, she was doing a PhD in Cambridge and told me to think about the UK. She’s extremely ambitious and she coached in me a sense of ambition and encouraged me to go for the best thing, to push myself. I’m not sure I would have discovered that on my own.
The third person who I’ve got to know recently through my work with Women for Election is Mary Harney. As I’ve got to know her, I’ve found her inspiring: going into politics so young, being within a system that didn’t have many women and managing to become the first female leader of a political party and the first female Tánaiste. She has been a trailblazer for so many women with political ambition.
What are your tips and advice for success?
Be decisive. Don’t be afraid of making decisions and own your decisions. And don’t try to think too far into the future. Sometimes you have to live in the moment and make choices based on what’s in front of you. I don’t know where I’ll be in 10 years’ time but I know what I’m doing now is part of getting me there. I’m learning every day and that is such a valuable and rewarding experience.
Learn about yourself – the MBA certainly pushes you into doing quite a lot of reflection. I might not have been inclined towards that as I like to just get on with it. But actually, the learning has been enormously important to me and has helped me be better at what I do.
Do you have plans for the future?
Having just taken on the role at Drink Aware, I’m focused on making it a success. I feel strongly that what you do in one role leads to another and I know this will lead me to something interesting, but what that is I’m not sure! I am certain though that I want to be involved in politics or in public life in one way or another, maybe within an organisation or a movement, or maybe within the political sphere.
What are your other interests outside work?
It's embarrassing, but my biggest hobby is Women for Election. That's what I spend all my time doing outside work – I’m addicted. I wish I was one of those people who reveal something spectacular with this question: “I’m an Olympic shot putter or a concert musician”. Unfortunately, after Women for Election my interests are very simple: seeing friends and family, being outdoors, reading and current affairs.