What drew you to business and why did you decide to pursue a Bachelor of Business Administration in International Marketing from Texas A&M University?It’s interesting because my daughters and I were looking at this old Book of Memories from back when I was in high school and in it was a scholarship that I had gotten along with a mayor’s declaration that said I would be attending Texas A&M University majoring in pre-law. And my daughters were shocked! At the time, I was thinking about international and maritime law but I also felt that undergrad was going to be about just finding myself and not having to have everything sorted out or know exactly what I wanted to do. I took some business courses like intro-level marketing and advertising and really enjoyed them, so I decided that that would be a good path. Ultimately, it was probably less about the classes I took and more about the opportunities that I saw. I suspected going into consulting would allow me to travel a lot for work, live in different areas, meet a lot of different people, and really expand my perspective. Growing up, I had gone to many different schools, but I didn’t really travel a lot outside of the country or even outside of Texas and I knew that was part of the lifestyle that I wanted for myself. International marketing was great because we did research, projects, and papers about what it would take to launch an export business in Argentina, for example. We had to research cultural norms, business laws, logistics, infrastructure, and all kinds of things.
For me, I felt like I was really learning about a lot of other areas and broadening my scope beyond just Texas. That definitely got me out of bed in the morning.
Flash forward to 2017, what prompted you to start your own global business consulting practice?Right out of undergrad, I decided to go to one of the big five consulting firms, and I went with Price Waterhouse. So by 2017, I’d been consulting for a long time. Every Monday, I was on a plane to another city where my current client was located, and every Friday, I was on a plane back home. When I became pregnant with my older daughter, I knew that traveling back and forth every week wasn’t really going to work out, so my husband and I began talking about where we wanted to lay down our roots. Shifting away from consulting, I took a job at The Gap — one of my former clients — to help build their product organization and help them on their Agile transformation. Eventually, I moved over to Macy’s. Both times I was in e-commerce, building & leading product organizations and having a blast helping establish customer-centric product mindsets, and driving innovation. After about seven years at each place, however, I learned that driving change in an organization from the inside has its pros and cons. It’s good because you have relationships with people so you can lean on them to help drive the change, but there’s also a lot of politics inherent in large organizations. Eventually, people start to ask, “WHY are you driving that change? Are you just trying to grow your power?” And then you are met with more resistance. I wanted to spend more of my time actually driving the change, rather than convincing people we needed to change, helping to build effective product teams and making sure that we were solving real customer problems, driving real business value, and changing people’s mindsets for the long term. I felt I could do that better if I went back into consulting because then I would be able to spread time across multiple organizations that were asking for help, versus just going deep in the one for seven or eight years. I happen to have worked with some folks in South America and they needed more of my type of expertise for their organizations’ digital transformations, so I started my business with several clients in Chile and then added clients in the US. To this day, I’d say 75% of my clients are usually outside of the US and 25% are domestic. It’s kind of fun to think about how I came full circle from those international courses I took during undergrad, to running a truly global consulting practice.
How is Peerless Partners different from other consulting firms and why is it important to embed yourself within the company you are working with?I like to think it’s not like the perception many have around “typical” consulting, where you’re creating a PowerPoint and you’re probably regurgitating and just tweaking the PowerPoint for the same last five companies that have similar problems. The name peerless comes from the approach of embedding ourselves in the organization.
It’s like truly being a partner and digging in to understand where the bodies are buried, not just what you can see on the surface level.For example, at one of my Fortune 100 retail clients, the head of international product had gotten promoted so she vacated her old position. Rather than just hiring someone right away, knowing that they needed to elevate their product practices across the board, she thought about how she could infuse the team with some product coaching while taking her time to hire a great product leader. So she asked me, “Would you come in and lead this team for nine months so you can see what’s working, what’s not working, and really start trying to drive some of that change from within?” Over time, I would be able to identify the best candidates for the role and help onboard, train, coach, guide, and support the person who would take that role for the long term, because I really understood the team dynamics, political landscape, technical landscape, realities of the systems & ways of working, the business environment and the focus on customers.
How did you get to teaching in 2021?I had this book when I was younger that went through all 13 years of school. There were five questions that it asked every year and one of the questions was “What do you want to be when you grow up?” Without fail, every year mine said, “Teacher,” with one exception of “teacher and dancer.” I have an aunt who was a professor and the head of the physics department at a private college in the Pacific Northwest. I remember sitting in the back of her physics class — which made very little sense to me as an eight-year-old — and just loving the passion with which she was teaching and the relationship she had with her students who, to this day, still come and visit her whenever they’re in town.
I just thought that seemed like a pretty awesome way to spend your day and your career, in that you’re helping people and you’re getting so much back from them as well.I think that’s probably one of the reasons I was attracted to consulting and being a product coach who spends time building high-functioning product teams — because I spend most of my time training, coaching in context, and guiding my clients from C-level to individual contributors. So at this point, I’ve been doing it for a very long time and people say all the time, “You actually already are a teacher.” But it’s still a little bit different than in my Fung Institute classroom. Jennifer Yang, who’s another one of the instructors, taught a marketing and product management class during the Fung Institute engineering leadership boot camp and while she’s got a wealth of experience in marketing, she didn’t have a great deal of product expertise so she asked me to come in and be a guest lecturer for that section of the course. I did that for a couple of semesters and had a blast. Then they asked if I would like to have my own classes to increase the options for our students, and of course, I agreed, and have been having the time of my life ever since.
How does the coaching you do through Peerless Partners differ from the way that you teach?There are several differences, one of which is that my students are choosing to be there, versus in these large Fortune 500 companies, their executives have said, “Hey, we need to elevate our skill set in a certain way, or drastically change the way we work, and we want you guys to go through this program,” so I have a bit more work to do to get my clients to be open to a new way of thinking, and working. The bigger difference is that obviously, the products that my clients are building are things like an app that lets you check out for your groceries without standing in line or an inventory management system that optimizes allocation of products to preserve the most margin and minimize out of stocks, or a geo catchment algorithm that helps us deliver customer orders faster. By contrast, my students are building a machine that’s going to clean up oil spills faster or detect diabetes earlier in order to prevent folks from losing their eyesight, things like that.
I feel humbled every single day because I’ve had to take something I know so well and have such deep subject matter expertise and translate that into context that’s going to make sense for them.At the end of the day, the skills they need are the same, regardless of where they’re applying it. They need to rely on developing a strong point of view, ground in data, but ensure it’s weakly held. They need to engage in critical thinking to evaluate not just whether something is a good idea, but if it is the best idea. They need to simplify complex concepts, engage and influence, and rally a team around a shared mission via storytelling. They need to practice active listening & empathy to truly uncover the most important problems to solve or opportunities to seize. They need to expose assumptions and drive alignment around logic and hypotheses as the basis of a financial model.
To me, it feels like the best gig ever.Not only am I teaching and hopefully helping arm them with tools, frameworks, and a mindset that can set them up for success, but I’m also learning from them all the time, where these approaches might need to be adapted in a different context, the challenges they face in applying them, and their perspective. That’s what gives me a renewed passion — not that I was lacking any passion before, but it’s a bonus to keep refreshing it!
How does your teaching methodology tie into the work you do at Peerless Partners?One of the things about my style is that it’s very approachable. I have to eat my own dog food and practice what I preach in the sense of building trust and credibility. One of the most important things for me is that I want my class to feel like a safe place where students can ask a question without judgment. I also want them to be able to challenge each other, or me, and I want them to feel heard. There’s power in teams with cognitive diversity, and we are blessed to inherently have that in the classroom at the Fung Institute. It’s like a little fishbowl in which I am trying to model the behavior that I’m trying to teach them. We start every day with something about me so they can get to know me beyond just being their instructor. I also try to learn about them because I think that’s super important for us to connect, to build trust and openness, and create that safe place. That’s something that’s so critical for them to take into the workplace and it’s something I use every day with my clients. I have to do the same thing, whether I’m at the front of a classroom, or I’m facilitating a workshop with my clients, or sitting in a one-on-one meeting with them:
I have to connect with them as humans in order to begin to develop a relationship with them.And when we do that, we can increase our influence and implicit leadership. I haven’t spent a dollar on marketing since I’ve launched my company and that’s because all of my work has come from word of mouth and referrals from people I’ve worked with before. I think that’s a good indicator of the work that we do, and the relationship that I’m developing with my partners. Some of my closest friends to this day are people I’ve worked with at some point over the years. That’s a critical parallel: I have to establish trust and credibility in my clients, I have to do the same thing in the classroom, and it’s a big part of what I’m teaching them to do in order to increase their own organizational influence. They might have a really great idea for something that’s going to be an amazing product but it’s not going to do them any good if they can’t tell the story and influence people to get resources for that idea, and collaboration to help bring it to life.
What is the biggest thing you hope students take away from your classes?From my organizational behavior and negotiations class, it is that notion of influence. The ability to lead implicitly is more important than explicit titles and power you’ve been formally given.
You can get people to truly walk through fire and glass if you can build trust and credibility to the point that they don’t have to follow you, but they choose to.In product management, I think the most important thing is that whether they want to build a startup, are starting a new role within a large organization, have a community service project that they are passionate about, they need to start with articulating a clear problem to solve (or opportunity to seize) that is ideally user-centered and articulate it in a way that everyone can understand the why behind it.
“Why do we want to do this? What’s the problem we want to solve? How are we going to measure success?”Then, they can build a hypothesis to articulate what they believe will happen if we address it.
“If we do this, here’s what we expect to happen and here’s how we’re going to know that it was successful.”If they do the research, the quantitative and qualitative analysis, talk to people, and come back and articulate that, they can sell anything. The other thing we talk about a lot is a lot of critical thinking and how externalizing that thinking is really powerful to drive alignment with people. We make a lot of assumptions as humans and so externalizing our thinking and stepping back to examine it ourselves first is key. And then we can invite other people to critique that thinking, not taking offense but instead valuing that perspective.
What have you learned from your students?A great reminder for me is that most of them come into the program with a wealth of experience and expertise of their own. I’m so used to people needing my help and counting on me and my perspective; it’s so refreshing to be able to lean on their perspectives as well. It’s great for me to learn from them about some of the pain points they found in the workplace; the way that they look at relationships between managers, management levels, and leaders; the culture in an organization and their relationships with peers; and how they think about building and leading a team. I learn every day about different ways to apply and challenge the things I think I know — I’m constantly evolving. Every semester, I update my material just to make sure that I can catch anything that I got from them so that next time around, I can reflect that with my next class.
It seems like you really enjoy teaching, but what keeps you coming back semester after semester?I would definitely say the learning that I get out of it. I love that I have to rethink things I think I know because there’s another context that it’s being applied to. I consider myself a lifelong learner and I love the fact that I’m still learning new things along with my students and from them. I also love the questions that they ask which gives me insight into how they are approaching things whether it’s about school, entering the workforce, building relationships, all kinds of things. It’s wonderful for me to be able to hear their perspectives and see how passionate they are. We all have cognitive biases and the time I have with them helps challenge a lot of those biases and reminds me that everyone doesn’t look at the world the same which is valuable for me and my clients as well as my other students.
I’m confident that I’m learning just as much as they are each session.I also love when I see a student have an “aha moment” and I can tell that I’ve changed their thinking — not that I’ve taught them a skill, or a tool, or a framework, because a lot of people can do that. Changing someone’s mindset and the way they think about things is the biggest win to me because I believe that if they go into the workforce or whatever adventure is next for them, that mindset shift is going to mean they can do whatever they set out to do. Connect with Janel. Edited by Veronica Roseborough.
Engineering Leadership Instructor Janel Wellborn: “I’m learning just as much as they are.” was originally published in Berkeley Master of Engineering on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.