Rising to Any Occasion

Kim Harrelson shares how the lessons learned over her career are now making a major impact in her new role at Lonza

Something about Kim Harrelson blurs the lines of perception. On one hand, there is little she hasn’t seen throughout her distinguished legal career, yet she will readily admit that she is not the smartest lawyer in the room. And even when it comes to beginning a role outside of her comfort zone—such as a daunting task in assuming a new role in business operations at a global healthcare company—she welcomes it with open arms.

There are a few traits, though, that have influenced Harrelson throughout her career, including her journey to Lonza—a leading supply company to pharmaceutical, biotech, and specialty ingredients markets. From a young age, Harrelson describes herself as always being a worker bee. But she was also identified early on as someone with impeccable leadership skills who is ready and willing to outwork everyone and who has the keen ability to bring people together.

“Even though I was identified for having good leadership skills, it came from not really having the authority or the position of being a leader, but rather by making an effort to make sure the right people are exchanging information, whether that’s peers within the legal department, or a lawyer with somebody I know on the business side who’s dealt with something similar,” Harrelson explains.

Kim Harrelson, Lonza

Perhaps then it was in high school when Harrelson was first recognized for her leadership skills. Being involved in the debate and dance teams, Harrelson was also encouraged to run for class office, where she went on to be elected vice president. Then as a business major in college, Harrelson was asked to participate in a business plan competition, which involved organizing a group to formulize a proposal, forecast financials, and outline the model.

“By the end, through practice, I had risen to the level of the team leader because I thought that I was the one that was making sure that the pieces made sense fitting together, and I could take a higher-level perspective,” she says.

These leadership qualities—collaboration, strong communication, and a tireless work ethic—are ingrained in Harrelson. It’s also a collection she brought with her to Arch Chemicals in 2007, where at the time, Harrelson says she was the lowest lawyer on the totem pole. But over time, she earned several promotions, and another intangible in Harrelson’s collection of leadership qualities emerged: the ability to keep calm under pressure.

“I’ve had some colleagues that I’ve worked with in the past ten years on a variety of different things reach out and say, ‘You were always a calming influence when things were difficult,’ and that they appreciated my steady support through things that people can otherwise get pretty excitable about,” Harrelson says.

In 2011, Lonza acquired Arch Chemicals, and in 2015, Harrelson became the company’s North American general counsel. Despite working predominately on the legal side of the company, Harrelson explains that the collaboration between legal and business was evident. Often times, many assume that going to the legal department with a question means receiving a no answer. But Harrelson made it a point—and also encouraged her team—to know Lonza’s customers, understand the strategic objective of the company, and to be a true business partner to solve any issue. “You become really more of a proactive problem-solver than just an advisor of legal advice,” she says.

Last year, Lonza finalized a major acquisition of Capsugel from KKR for about $5.5 billion. Recognizing her strong business mind-set, the company appointed Harrelson to the role of consumer health integration manager shortly after. Having thoroughly enjoyed her role in the legal department, Harrelson admits that, though she was excited to embark on this new role, she was skeptical about working mostly in the business realm of the global corporation. With such a large acquisition as well, there were several obstacles that needed to be sorted out when combining the two major organizations. Along with coordinating human resources, leaders also had to define and communicate strategy to the combined team and, in the end, position Lonza and Capsugel to come together seamlessly. It’s a tall order for any company to sustain business continuity during a business acquisition, particularly one of this magnitude.

To assist in the transition, Harrelson is actively participating in change management, bringing those same qualities that were instilled in her at a young age to the forefront of the company. She’s also using that tireless work ethic to go the extra mile, such as attending trade shows to learn more about the business and meeting with team members throughout the company to increase communication and collaboration. Harrelson says it has been a daunting new venuture, particularly because of all the moving pieces.

“Our primary goal is to maintain business continuity, first and foremost, and then to organize strong-
performing, combined teams and build what will continue to be a growing business,” she says. “We refer to it as taking the best from both. Even though the days are hard and I sometimes feel like I’m running behind, at a minimum, I’m helping connect people to talk to each other to figure out the best way forward.”

Harrelson has all the qualities, though, to make this venture a success, which has received numerous accolades from her peers. “Lonza benefits from Kim’s collaborative and steady leadership style,” says Bob Shuftan, partner at Steptoe & Johnson LLP. “She empowers her talented colleagues to share responsibility for making important strategic decisions while supporting them and balancing business needs. The result is a strong team approach to meeting and overcoming challenges.”

There are many different types of leaders, just as there are many qualities that help define the perception of Harrelson. It’s these traits, along with a genuine interest in a team she leads, that have propelled her career, whether it be transitioning from North American general counsel to consumer health integration manager at one of the largest corporations in the world or earning the trust of her high school classmates to be elected vice president.

“I think you really have to be sincere and believe in what the initiative or the objective is,” Harrelson says. “I think the first part of it is really getting your own beliefs and support. Then, people can see that authenticity and that you’re supporting what you believe in. When you have good relationships with people and they trust you, then that helps bring them together faster. I always told my legal team that I’m certainly not the smartest lawyer in the room, but I’m happy to be a sounding board for you to make you the best that you can be.”

Photo: Kim Busby Photography

“It’s our privilege to work with Kim Harrelsonand Lonza, one of the world’s leading and most-trusted suppliers to the pharmaceutical, biotech, and specialty ingredients markets. We value our relationship with Kim and the rest of the Lonza team and are committed to working with them to deliver the highest level of service.”

 –Kevin Collins, Partner, Jenner & Block