Discover more from Rougher drafts by Archie
Interview with Ethan Evans, former Amazon VP and an executive coach - Mirror into executive life, path to VP, career advice, and more
We cover Ethan’s reflection on his journey, path to VP, career advice, personal sacrifices, perspective on career coaching, and more.
Hey! 👋 I’m Archie! Welcome to my newsletter - The Rougher Drafts. Every week, I write about leadership, career advice, product, and technology. Among other things, I’m building The Breakout Space - a career accelerator for ambitious early/mid-career folks. Subscribe to receive new posts directly in your inbox and support my work.
Ethan is a former Amazon VP and an executive career coach. He has nearly three decades of corporate experience, a 15-year-long rewarding career at Amazon where he started as a Sr Manager in 2005 and grew all the way to a VP.
I have come to know him closely through his writing and videos on LinkedIn, Medium, and YouTube. His mission is to share the lessons learned in his long career to save others from delay and frustration struggling with issues he has been through before.
In the interview below, we cover Ethan’s reflection on his journey, path to VP, career advice, personal sacrifices, and his perspective on career coaching. This is split into three sections,
On looking back and retrospecting
On career, life, and promotions
On personal goals, industry observations, and coaching business
As a heads up, this interview is lengthy and may require multiple readings to fully absorb. Plus, the advice is so valuable and timeless that you'll probably want to come back to it again and again! Let’s dive in..
On looking back and retrospecting
1/ Looking back at your career, knowing what you know now, what would you change or do differently?
There are of course many things I would change, so I will try to focus on just a few.
First off, I would seek mentorship and coaching much earlier. I was lucky to have good managers who served as mentors in some companies, but I really had no one explain to me what a career path looked like and how to go about growing into one. I think many people are like me - they simply take a job and work hard, hoping for good results. But hope is not a strategy. If I had it to do over again I would seek out a diverse set of career mentors much earlier. I believe I could have gone much further, much faster, with better guidance.
The other thing I would change would be to have more confidence and comfort that I would get where I was going. I spent a lot of my career until the last few years worried that I would not succeed. Now that I am older and I have seen many careers unfold, I realize that most professionals end up well to do with good retirement options. I worked extremely hard and missed out on some other things in life because I felt I had to get top marks at every turn to keep moving forward. I think I could have taken more time to enjoy life along the way and still basically had the same success.
These two points really go together. You’ve heard of working smarter, not harder? I needed the guidance in my first point, better mentorship, so that I could work smarter, rather than what I did, in the second point, which was to work harder. These things are what I would change.
2/ What were some instances of personal setbacks or failure situations at work? How did you overcome those?
I was laid off twice in the middle of my career. In both cases, the root cause was the same. While the two companies were struggling startups, my personal behavior as a leader within them made me expendable. Specifically, I was very critical of other leaders when I believed they were wrong. I was quite willing to be outspoken. This trait has been an asset in my career when I have been right, but not when I have been wrong. In these cases, I was only seeing one aspect of a peer leader’s performance. I was missing other pieces of what they were doing that the CEO above me valued. So, while I had some good points about part of the situation, I was wrong overall. However, it was not being wrong that got my name added to the list of people the shrinking companies no longer needed. Rather, it was my abrasive behavior.
After the second layoff, it took me a while to find a new job. That gave me a good amount of time to ask myself, “how did I get into this situation?” With introspection, I realized that it was my own conduct. Thus, I set out to change. As many of you may realize, even if you can see what you are doing wrong it is not always easy to change deeply ingrained habits. But over time I became a much calmer, more considerate leader. I still speak my mind, but I am careful to ask questions and think very carefully before doing so.
My final point - though technically I was part of a layoff in each case, in many ways I was fired. Yet I have had a wonderfully successful career. If you are willing to learn and adapt, even adverse traits (like mine) and being fired (like me) will not hold you back in the end.
3/ How was your transition from senior engineering management to managing an entire business unit? What new skills did you learn? What skills did you have to purposely leave behind?
I decided to transition from engineering leader to General Manager (GM) on purpose. Our company had bought a very small startup. I asked if I could lead it as a way of leading an entire division, even if it was tiny. That startup made $4 million a year. For some, $4 million will seem like a big number. But at the time Amazon was maybe a $40 billion company, so I was responsible for 0.01% of the revenue. It gave me a safe place to practice and learn.
I had to learn two key new skills. One was financials. I had never really cared about the dollars and cents. I had focused on building technology. But now I had to try to understand where our profits and expenses came from. The second skill was product expertise. Rather than just build what someone else asked for, I had to learn how to decide what to build and what not to build. This second skill came somewhat naturally to me and we made some good product choices. The first skill, the financials, took me a long time and I am still no expert.
The biggest thing I had to leave behind was a classic bias for engineering. I think many people from all sorts of fields leave college with a belief that what they do is the most important part of a business. The engineers believe that the technology is key. The product people think it is the design. The financial people believe that none of it can happen without the money. They marketing and sales people know that no business survives without customers. In truth, all parts are needed. I had to leave behind a pro-technology bias to realize that sometimes the best solution for the business might be to change the products name and positioning in the market or to fight for different business terms, not to build more clever features.
4/ What were crucible moments(step function change in your behavior/skillset or defining moment in your career) for you at work?
Certainly, the last two answers were step changes. Getting let go and realizing that I needed to change as a person was a huge step change. So was moving into general management.
The other crucible moments often came from crisis situations. I actually love crisis management, when a system fails or a customer is unhappy or a critical product has to hit an urgent deadline. I love these moments because everything else drops away. Suddenly all your boring meetings can wait, as can going to the gym to work out and even sleeping. You grab some cold pizza, get in a room with your team, and figure out how to handle things.
You learn the most the fastest in a crisis. You have to make quick decisions and that teaches you to be decisive, take risks, and take action. Sometimes those actions fail in spectacular fashion, and nothing teaches as quickly as rapid feedback and pain. But almost everything is solvable with hard work. So when I or my team fell short, we were almost always able to work through it.
Thus my advice would be, take risks, be bold, get yourself in trouble, and then get yourself out of it. The way through the crisis is forward. If you get paralyzed with fear you will be left behind.
5/ Did you ever feel like an imposter at work? How did you manage that?
I felt like an imposter lots of times. Amazon’s leadership team is wicked smart. When I was promoted to Vice President in that large company, my peers were all incredible people. Smart, hard working, and talented.
I ultimately managed it in two ways. First, I accepted that I was not the best. I was good, perhaps even very good, but not the best and that was OK. Second, I realized that my self worth did not come from being the best. Humans have intrinsic self worth. They have value because they are unique, living, thinking beings. I learned to stop comparing myself to others and to instead simply look at my own conduct. As long as I gave my best, that would be good enough for me. And as it turned out, it was also good enough for others.
On career, life, and promotions
1/ How have you kept your managers accountable for career growth?
I developed a simple saying. Employees would come to me and ask, “why didn’t you promote me?” I would tell them, “because you did not earn it.” I would then go on to say, “remember, you need to own your own career. If I owned your career, it would be called my career, and I already have one.” A manager’s job is to give employees opportunity and guidance. I tried to do that for my team members and many of them were promoted. For myself, I realized I had to ask my managers for what I wanted.
In at least a couple of situations, I had to have very tense discussions with a manager. In those discussions, I found very polite but clear ways to let them know that I was willing to quit and go elsewhere if I needed to do so. Luckily, in those cases, the managers determined that my services were valuable enough to retain, which means that I got what I wanted in return.
In other cases, I was able to form deeply cooperative relationships with managers. I would do everything I could to help them and they helped me in return. I also was able to do this downward with some of my best employees.
The way this question is framed presupposes an adversarial relationship, how have I kept managers accountable? The truth is that I did that through careful, tough conversations when needed, but far more often I was able to build relationships with managers such that they wanted to help me grow. While you need the former skill to be tough when you must, it is far, far better to use the latter skill. Help your manager. Be worthy of investment. A good manager wants to see you grow. If you have to be tough, you are already in a bad spot.
2/ How did you pick your own managers?
One time I spent six months searching for a new manager. After those six months, I took a role under the best person I had found. Six weeks later he was reorganized to a new role and I got a new boss.
Sometimes you can pick your managers, but you cannot always expect it to last. You need to get good at adapting to your managers. This topic is in such high demand in my coaching community online that I just released a whole two-hour course on how to manage up successfully. While managing up well will not turn a tyrannical boss into a great one, it will help you survive until you can flee. And with any better boss, it will help you become an ally.
As for choosing bosses, here is my secret - first, if you can, pick someone you already know. If you cannot, then check their references. Ask to talk to people on their team. Find someone on LinkedIn who knows them. Bosses check references on you… why would you not find a way to check references on them? The only real way to pick a good boss is to find someone you trust who can tell you if they really are good. So put in the networking legwork and do that. Then manage up well.
3/ Going all the way back in your career when you started working in the industry, which promotion was the hardest for you?
“Hard” can mean two things here. One type of hard is getting the promotion. Certainly, that was the promotion to Vice President at Amazon. The bar for that is incredibly high and the competition very stiff. I worked towards it for years. My boss was completely on my side, helping me every step of the way and it still took several years.
The other type of “hard” is learning to do the job well. For me, I would say each of my difficult promotions were times when I had to learn a new function. These were not promotions in the sense of a raise and a title, but in the sense of scope. I was assigned new tasks I knew nothing about. One time I got a call at 8 PM at night that someone at our company had been let go and I needed to take over three teams the next morning. One of those teams was a security team at a business I knew hackers often targeted. The business had been successfully hacked before. That was very hard. Taking over something I knew nothing about but knew was an immediate threat. You do this by throwing yourself into learning and by having or hiring good people. In that case, the security team we had was really strong. All I needed to do was support them and they kept us safe.
4/ What personal sacrifices did you have to make to get where you got? And, did you find yourself making more of those as you moved up your career ladder? How did you scale yourself in your personal life as you continued rising in your career?
This question is pretty personal, but if my truth will help people, then it is worth sharing. During my executive career, I was divorced. Eventually, my ex-wife made a decision to move to a different state, taking my daughter, then 9, with her. I had a choice, of following her to stay near my daughter or of becoming a long-distance dad. The place I would be moving if I moved had decent career options, but not as good as where I was. But, I suspected (and a few years later was proven right) that she would move again. That second place had few career options and my life would be much different if I had made those moves.
I could have tried to fight a messy legal battle to keep my ex-wife from moving away. I decided not to do that and as a result, we have always had a cooperative parenting relationship even if we no longer get along as a couple.
I could have moved. I decided that I would not allow my life to be controlled by where someone else chose to move and when they did it. However, this choice did cost me a lot of closeness and involvement with my daughter’s life. We flew back and forth on holidays several times a year and spoke on the phone (in the old days) and by Facetime every week, but honestly, no one-hour calls and one-week visits can replace being there every day.
Was this “required” to get to executive? Well, I can tell you that in the pain from the divorce, I threw myself into work and during those years I was single I was able to put in enormous amounts of hours. So, I cannot tell you it is required. I can tell you that the choice not to move (and the cost that came with it) probably got me where I ended up.
I would not be human if I did not ask myself, “was it worth it?” Of course, I ask myself this. The truth is, I cannot know what might have happened if I had moved to stay near my daughter. Maybe today we would have a much closer, deeper relationship. Or maybe I would have resented the damage to my career and as a result, lost the relationship we do have as well. We cannot know. But the question is a good one. It is incredibly tough to meet the demands of executive roles and be a good parent.
One founder and CEO I know said this when I was creating my course on how to become an executive:
“You should tell them that if they do not have an almost unhealthy love for the work, they shouldn’t try.”
He understood that for most people it takes a near-damaging level of obsession to reach the top. Now, he remains married to his college girlfriend with two great kids. But his personal price was 10 years of sleeping only with the help of the sleeping drug Ambien to get there.
5/ In a few lines, what’s needed for someone who starts as a technical IC to go from,
i) Jr to Sr
ii) Sr to Principal
iii) Principal to Director
iv) Director to VP
The general answer to all of these is the same. It is a five-step process I call the Magic Loop:
Do your current job well. Find out if you are by asking for feedback and then addressing it rather than making excuses
Ask your boss what more you can do to help
Do it (do it well)
Go back and ask how you can do something with your boss that will also help with your career goals. Bosses you have truly helped will help you in return. If they do not, leave.
Repeat this loop.
I have a YouTube video that explains this in more detail, but this recipe is the key for every promotion.
On personal goals, observations, coaching business
1/ You left your corporate career to pursue your own coaching business. Did you ever get a career coach for yourself? If so, at what level and how did it help you?
I have had three career coaches. One when I became a Director at Amazon, one when I became a Vice President, and one when I was Executive Vice President at Twitch (an Amazon subsidiary).
All three coaches helped me tremendously. For what it is worth, I’ve also seen a therapist and would tell those who are full of either pride that they do not need that kind of help or fear that others will judge you for being weak to get over it. We all grow up with assorted mental baggage from our younger lives that hold us back from greatness. The coaches helped me with the skills I needed, in my case mostly soft skills. The therapist helped me with the peace of mind and inner reserves of confidence and energy to use the new skills to get results.
2/ What are your personal goals now?
To pay forward the good fortune in my life to others. I am an Ohio farm kid who has succeeded far beyond what I ever thought was possible. I am lucky enough right now to have everything I need and more. So, I see it as my responsibility to help as many people as I can. That is why I’ve spent over an hour on a Saturday evening typing up several pages of answers here and why I have told painful stories like the loss of daily contact with my daughter. Because the last goal I have in my life is to help others.
3/ What are some blindspots you see in early/mid-career product and engineering people?
I’ve mentioned these above but they are worth repeating. Fearing that you will not succeed. If you work hard and smart, over time you will likely have and get everything you want. Second, for engineers or product people, failing to appreciate other disciplines. It is a fun sport to make fun of non-technical people. There is a joke that says that the difference between sales and marketing is that at least marketing knows that they are lying. Laugh at the joke if you want, but realize that all of those functions actually have a ton of value. Learn to see, capture, and enhance that value. You cannot be good at everything, so let other people be great at other things and together you can soar.
4/ What are areas where coaching really helps? And, what are some areas where coaching may not be the best tool?
Coaches help with two things:
Seeing your blind spots. They are not wrapped up in your career, your family, or your situation. They can analyze without emotions and see things you cannot
The pathway ahead. A coach ideally has experience in the path you want to walk, but even if they do not, they have seen dozens or hundreds of other people on that path. As a result, they have seen what does and does not work to achieve each career goal in many different circumstances. By definition, your next career step is new to you. Why would you not talk to someone who has seen that step take many different ways, successfully and unsuccessfully?
Coaches are not magical and should not be expected to “fix” things. You have to do the work. So where coaches are not the best tool is to try to fix some symptom when you are not ready to work on the root cause. Earlier I talked about needing to admit I was abrasive and critical. A coach might be able to point this out, but if I was not in a place to accept the input it would not have helped. The place where a coach is useless is to help you with something someone else, like a boss, has told you to work on but that you do not believe is important.
5/ What is the best way for people to get in touch with you?
Via LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/ethanevansvp/
My website: www.ethanevans.com
My career courses: https://ethan-evans.mykajabi.com/
If you have questions or thoughts on the topic, you can tweet them to me or send me a DM on LinkedIn! I’ll tackle reader questions each week (keeping your name and company anonymous), and hey, it’s free! 😎
Check out The Breakout Space to join my career accelerator program! You’ll get access to cohort-based courses with principles/frameworks/tactics that go beyond “makes sense in theory” to being proven, practical, and possible. Your current and future self will thank you for it!
Thanks for reading Rougher drafts by Archie! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.