When her younger brother got engaged in early 2020, Celeste Harrison signed up for a ballroom dance class in preparation for the wedding. “I went to a little studio in Sarasota,” she says. “I was just going to do ten lessons to brush up on my social dancing basics, and then I got this teacher with huge, beautiful white hair wearing a velvet-sequined white blazer on a Tuesday afternoon.”
That instructor encouraged Harrison to try her hand at competitive ballroom dance. With a little push, Harrison agreed. One year later, she can’t imagine a better hobby—or a better learning environment. Ballroom taught her to trust her partner, be present in the moment, and let go of what she can’t control.
These skills help her excel not only on the floor, but also in her legal practice as senior associate general counsel at electronics manufacturing services provider Jabil. She brings a creative mindset and success-oriented leadership style to the role, which will soon see her relocating to the company’s Shanghai office.
After graduating from the Temple University Beasley School of Law, Harrison spent several years in private practice. She always knew she wanted to go in-house and ultimately made the jump to aerospace company Boeing in the wake of the 2008 recession. “I learned more about in-house work at Boeing than I could have anywhere else,” she says. “Boeing taught me how to get something done with innumerable colleagues, numerous divisions and business entities, and funding coming from many different locations.”
Furthermore, Harrison discovered that working in-house allowed her to embrace her individuality in a new way. “When you’re practicing law in private practice, being different is not seen as an asset. But in-house, it’s absolutely essential,” she explains. “Of the services a lawyer provides now, research is the baseline. Lawyers need to have an abundance of imagination and creativity because it isn’t only about issue spotting anymore.”
Harrison applies the same standard at Jabil. “The support I give as a lawyer—and the support I’m looking for in my outside counsel—is not just researching what the law says. If you’re supporting an industry that is prioritizing growth and innovation, you need to find ways to be creative and meet your business colleagues in the business paradigm they’re pursuing,” she says.
In her nine years at Jabil, Harrison has supported business units ranging from the defense and aerospace division where she started to the enterprise, print, and retail divisions where she finds herself today.
“When I got to Jabil, it was very much a right place, right time situation because the company was just embarking on a period of growth, change, and maturity. I already knew how to maneuver within a large organization, so I was able to provide additional value to my internal business customers,” she says.
Beyond adding value on the business side, Harrison has leaned into her role as a legal leader. Even early on in her tenure at Jabil, she went out of her way to support her colleagues as much as she was supporting the business itself. For example, she says, “When I left the defense and aerospace business unit, I was given a direct report in Ukraine. She had been with the company for many, many years, but through my work with her, she became more engaged with her job.”
Harrison coordinated with other members of the legal function to expand her engagement-driven approach across the European Union. As a result, Jabil employees in the region left their silos and started operating in a truly collaborative mode.
“Celeste played a critical role in our work with Jabil,” says Daniel Wuhrmann, equity partner at Reuschlaw Legal Consultants, a German law firm specializing in product compliance and liability. “Her leadership skills and quick adaptation to European legal structures guaranteed a smooth and effective workflow at all times.”
As a leader, Harrison seeks to position her team members for success in their current roles as well as their careers more broadly. “Leadership is about helping my team be unafraid, enthusiastic, and optimistic about their futures,” she says. “I don’t need to prove that I’m the smartest, most important person in the room. I need my people to feel confident enough to do their jobs well and empowered enough to make the hard decisions.”
Harrison believes that she can best serve her team members by trusting in their abilities—a task made easier thanks to her time on the competitive ballroom dance circuit. “In ballroom, you are working to create something that did not exist before. You have to trust that your partner is going to do their job well enough that you can focus on doing your own job,” she says. “It’s hard because you want to be an independent creature, but that is not how you create the best look or the best art out on the floor. You have to do it together.”
Ballroom has also taught Harrison to home in on the elements of a situation that she can control at any given moment. This focus on her own actions and reactions helps her stay grounded in her work at Jabil, where her next challenge will entail driving engagement and collaboration within her current team, based in Singapore, Taiwan, and China.
With a transfer to Shanghai on the horizon, Harrison hopes to continue supporting both her colleagues and her business units as she adjusts to her new home, closer to her team members. She also hopes to keep dancing—to remain in tune with herself and to relate to the people she will meet abroad.
“The great thing about ballroom is that you have to build a connection with another person,” says Harrison. “That connection is really valuable.”
Editor’s note, 2/7/22: Celeste Harrison is no longer at Jabil.