Ethan Evans (Ex-VP Amazon): Growing from Product Manager to Product Leader
How navigate career setbacks and get promoted
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There's a lot of advice out there for early career product managers.
But mid-career PMs and managers often need more help. If you’re struggling to grow from product manager to product leader, then this post is for you.
Ethan is a former Amazon VP and one of the best product leaders that I know. In the interview below, we cover:
How to get promoted
How to deal with setbacks (e.g., layoffs, re-orgs)
How to manage up
How to think about your career
This is one of the best interviews that I’ve done - let’s dive in!
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Now onto the interview!
How to get promoted
Ethan, you joined Amazon as a senior manager and left as a VP over a decade later. What are three traits that led you to succeed at the company?
Thanks Peter. I think I succeeded due to three traits:
Take risks. My key successes came from risky bets (even though some did fail and bite me). My first promotion at Amazon was the result of a gamble where I pushed for a project to get funded. The project turned out even better than expected, resulting in people recognizing my leadership.
Work very hard. I was well known for simply cranking out a lot of work. It’s great to make good choices and win bets, but you also have to be the hardest worker in the room.
Hire and keep great people. I partnered with trusted subordinates throughout my career. I would “make a deal” with them where they would accomplish some hard goal for the team, and I would fight hard for them to be recognized within the promotion system.
Many mid-career PMs want to get promoted but feel stuck. Do you have any advice for them?
If you want to get promoted, my advice is to:
Be patient: The truth is that most people will work from their 20s to their 60s, or a period of 40+ YEARS. Even if you are wildly successful, you’ll probably still work for 20 years. With this lens, rushing to achieve everything in your career in your 20s and 30s will likely burn you out AND hold you back. This is hard advice to take, but try to have a lens that says, how do I reach my ultimate goal across a ten-year path?
Be opportunistic: The other side of patience is being bold enough to capture opportunities. Look for chances to step up, take risks, and change roles or companies - even when there’s risk. I went through 3 startups with massive layoffs and was laid off myself twice. These experiences were unpleasant but also invaluable. My most pivotal personal and professional growth came from being laid off in a recession with a young family to support. Take the risks and look for the silver lining when you have setbacks.
Be willing to make a plan: Many people are so heads down on work that they’re not investing in their own future. They’re not building a network, not talking to their manager about their path to promotion, and not actively building and showcasing skills that make them valuable. By all means, work hard. But reserve time to also work on your career path, network, and job alternatives.
Jeff Bezos had a saying:
"Be strategically patient, tactically impatient."
This means being patient in achieving your goal, but also insisting on making some kind of small progress every day. This is what I mean by patience and opportunism, plus a plan to invest in yourself.
Do you have any advice for product managers specifically?
Yes, PMs must excel in the following areas to get promoted:
You are paid to make the right judgments. You’re responsible for helping the team decide what product to build. Engineering bugs can be fixed. Late deliveries can still ship. But poor products that don’t meet customer needs simply never work. Build a worse mousetrap and no one will come to your door.
You are paid to be on top of the business. More than any other single person, you must know your customer and your data. I trained as an engineer, but I succeeded at product leadership because I was able to channel the customer's needs often enough to ship products that customers wanted. I had plenty of misses and failures, but enough successes to overall create growing businesses.
You must be an influential communicator. No one works for you - not sales, engineering, marketing, and certainly not your VP or founder. So, you must be persuasive. Engineers can get away with saying “so what if no one bought it, it worked.” This is not a good trait, but they will get by. You will not.
One of the more difficult transitions to navigate is going from IC to manager. Do you have any advice for people making this transition?
When people ask me if they should consider management, one of my first questions for them is what will motivate them to really learn a new profession.
I try to open their eyes to the fact that they are leaving behind what they used to do as a designer, an artist, or a product manager and taking on a new profession, with different skills and challenges. Yes, understanding the jobs their people will do helps, but it is not enough.
As a manager, you have to truly believe that your success comes through other people. I wrote about it more in this post.
How to deal with setbacks
Have you ever been laid off?
I was laid off in the fall of 2003. It was about the worst timing that you could imagine.
We were in a recession, but I had a good job. My wife and I were in the process of adopting a little girl from China. As the adoption date drew near, my wife, who also had a good job, left her role because we wanted to be present with our daughter. My workplace was struggling, but they knew that my adoption relied on me being able to show sufficient income to the US and Chinese governments. So in a strange kind of “kindness,” they delayed laying me off until we completed the adoption… and then laid me off as soon as I got back to the office.
Within weeks we went from double income to no income and a child.
I was already familiar with the book, What Color is Your Parachute. This book is phenomenal and I recommend it to anyone who needs a job. But, the key advice in my situation was “treat your job search like a job - work at it for 40 hours a week.” I immediately started putting a ton of time into my job search. I spent my day polishing my resume, networking, and reading books to tune up my skills. A silver lining of being out of work is that I was home with my daughter for three months after we got her. This was before maternity and paternity leave was standard.
In the end, it was networking that saved me. I reconnected with an old manager who had a new startup. That startup was in a different city. When I landed an interview with an unrelated company in the same city, I told my old manager “I would be in town.” That conversation eventually got me a job.
In many ways, getting laid off (fired really) was a blessing. It made me really look at what I failed to do that made the company willing to part with me. I’d been pretty abrasive in some of my interactions, and I think it was easy for some of the leaders there to decide that in a tight economy they could manage without me. This led me to change my behavior over time to become a much calmer, better executive.
In closing, I will say that there is nothing like watching your bank account head to zero and counting the days to running out of money to focus you on a job search. I know for some people this might crush them. For me, it gave me the drive to find a job and luckily I did.
In short, recovery was two things:
A deep look at why I was let go and what I need to do to avoid that in the future.
Very hard, fast work to find a job, with networking as the element that paid off.
Have you ever worked on a project that was canceled?
I’m lucky that my main work was never deprecated, though sometimes individual projects were killed. As a leader, I was often a part of the decision to kill projects (including at least one where we had to lay off some of the people). So, I think my experience may not be as relevant to those with less control over these decisions.
There was one case where I had run out of good ideas for a team. The business was stuck in a rut, and I was being pushed to innovate and (in my opinion) magically make it better. Rather than fail at this task, I moved on. Successors did not succeed either, so I feel I made the right choice. The good thing about Amazon is that I could move internally than leave the company.
Have you ever been reorged?
Yes, I’ve been reorged multiple times.
The most important lesson I can share here is that we all expect the worst. We fear that the new boss will be a bad person who will not understand or value us, who will want to bring in their own people, or who will have an incompatible style. But in fact, you actually have at least a 50% chance of getting a better boss in a reorganization.
At Amazon, I got assigned new managers not of my choosing three times, and two of them are among the best managers I’ve had. So what I would advise people is to have their eyes open.
The new boss is looking for allies, helpers, and people who welcome them. Treat them with suspicion and what do you expect them to do to you? Reach out and offer them help and you may gain a powerful ally.
How to manage up
To build on that point, I’ve noticed that it’s not enough to just do the work as you become more senior. You have to be able to manage up and across to be effective. Do you have any advice about managing up effectively?
Managers don’t want to manage you, they want you to manage them. Here’s how you can build a good relationship with your boss:
Understand. You can’t manage up well if you can’t see your manager’s perspective and the perspective of the broader business. Many people are working truly hard on the wrong things. They wonder why when they pour their souls into a project they are not rewarded. Often it is because they were working on something the manager or business did not value, or worse, actually opposed.
Communicate. Managing up requires…managing! You have to talk to your boss regularly. You have to get both good at communicating crisply and learning your manager’s preferred communication style.
Be proactive. One ugly surprise can wipe out half a dozen positive accomplishments. Thus, communicate possible problems ahead of time. Bad news foretold is much less painful than an ugly surprise.
I wrote a longer post about managing up here.
How to think about your career
You had a 15-year career at Amazon, was there a time when you seriously considered leaving?
There was at least one time I strongly considered leaving Amazon.
I was trying to make the leap from Senior Manager to Director. It was unclear if or when it would happen, so I interviewed outside and got a good offer. I was always transparent with my boss, and I simply talked to him.
I remember my exact words: “My career is very important to me and I need to know if it is also important to Amazon because if it is not I need to take that into consideration.”
This was very polite and indirect, but also very clear. I was promoted, and my new compensation made the other offer much less attractive, so I stayed.
Do you think people should always be casually looking for new opportunities? How do you know when it’s time to leave a job?
I don’t believe that you should always be looking.
I do believe you should always be building your network so that you have the ability to look quickly and effectively when you decide you need to. There are lots of reasons to build a network, so it isn’t all about getting a job, but networks are incredibly powerful when we do need a job.
How do you know when to look for a new job?
There could be many signs. I’ve listed some below:
You clash with your boss and struggle to adapt, earn trust, and resolve conflicts.
Your boss or your company is abusive or unethical.
Your company is failing. Do not go down with the ship unless you have the financial and emotional resources to deal with this.
You cannot grow further in your job. You’ve talked to your boss, and your current performance is excellent, but you’ve asked about suggested paths to growth without answers and support. Go somewhere you are appreciated.
Why did you choose to leave the corporate world to pursue your own coaching business? Was it stressful to be a VP?
I left the corporate world because I wanted to spend more time helping people.
At Amazon, my primary job was to run a business. Part of that was coaching and developing my team - mainly my direct reports and some “extra” time mentoring others. But now I’m free to put as much time as I want into speaking, writing, and coaching.
Being a VP was certainly stressful, but I think it was even more stressful to be working toward the VP promotion. As a VP, I had a lot of challenging work to do. As a Director trying to become a VP, I had to worry about both the work and how it was being evaluated. While you would hope that those two things are the same, sometimes they are not
The easiest ways to reach me are through the contact link on my website or by messaging me on LinkedIn. I love to coach people and I particularly enjoy challenging situations as they force me to come up with creative solutions.
It’s an online world today. A PM, or any professional, who is not investing at least something in the online world is ignoring a powerful tool. This does not mean that you have to be on every platform. Pick one that fits your style and leverage it. I’ve tried Twitch, YouTube, Twitter, and Instagram. Since I address a professional audience and I like the written format, I’ve found that LinkedIn works very well. So as I learned, I have focused 90% of my effort in one place.
PMs know how to evaluate alternatives and determine product/market fit. Your expertise and the people you want to connect to are your product; find the “market” that fits you. You already know how to do this - you only need to apply the exercise to yourself. PMs should be some of the most natural people in the world to have incredible careers.
You are the product. PMs simply need to apply their skills to themselves.
It is amazing how this idea is revolutionary to so many people, to think of themselves as the product. But every PM skill applies to ourselves. A product plan. A gap analysis. A marketing plan. A budget and an expected Return on Investment.
On behalf of all my readers, thanks Ethan!
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