Ethan Evans, my last manager and an experienced VP at Amazon, recently wrote about what he called the Law of Asymmetric Consequences.

The idea is that many consequences in our career are symmetrical. You slowly progress in skills through effort, and you are rewarded with raises. You continue to prove yourself, and you may earn yourself a promotion over time. You build connections with co-workers, and they slowly reward you with more earned trust.

However, there are brief moments in your career which will have outsized impact on where your career goes. I'll call those pivotal moments. They might be a single meeting, or a small side project.

Why should you care? Because if you pay careful attention, you can recognize some of these pivotal moments in advance. If you know it's a pivotal moment, you can make the most of the opportunity.

I'm going to chat about how to recognize some pivotal moments, and examples of how they turned out for me and others.

Pivotal moments

What makes for a brief moment with asymmetric consequences? A couple of things comes to mind.

Visibility - A meeting with the CTO. A presentation at a critical conference. The squeaky wheel gets the grease, and the visible employee gets attention.

Impact - A small action can have a large impact. A common example would be an operational scenario, where the website is down, and one employee figures out the key to getting everything running. That brief idea of how to fix something had a large impact.

When you see a potential pivotal moment approaching, I think the key is internally recognizing that his moment matters. Volunteering for an activity, which has visibility or impact, is one of the strongest ways to impact your career directly.

I remember someone asking a group of ambitious technology managers for a volunteer to give training to a group of senior product leaders. I was astounded that I was the only one to volunteer. When I asked a co-worker later why they didn't volunteer, they said that it sounded boring. They passed up an opportunity because they saw it as training, not as visibility.

Once upon a time, I wrote a document

At Amazon, there used to be a policy where new hires (or internal transfers) could not change teams until they had at least 1 year of tenure.

There were a couple of reasons for the policy.

  1. Discourage employees from running away from their problems. If they had performance issues on a team, we wanted them to deal with it.
  2. Ensure that employees contributed value on a team. If someone switched teams every few months, it would be hard for them to add much value, or have their contributions measured.

Regardless of the reasons for the policy, I felt that it had unintended consequences. In particular, it forced employees to stay with managers they didn't like. As a people leader, I felt that there needed to be negative consequences for poor management. If someone was a terrible manager, having everyone transfer off their team would be a pretty good indication that there was something wrong.

I ended up working with a co-worker (Nick Ciubotariu), on a white-paper proposing that the policy be changed. We weren't assigned the paper as a work task, and we didn't set out to help our careers. We simply were unhappy with a policy which was not employee-friendly.

After gathering feedback and some discussions, our document went in front of Jeff and the S-Team. They agreed to change the policy.

The visibility and impact was large. I was recognized regularly in meetings as the guy who wrote "that paper". It was listed in my Director promotion document, and was referenced by some of those supporting my promotion. What was a small side task, turned into a key element of my career.

(I also received feedback from a few Directors and VPs with swear words, that I had "destroyed Amazon" with the change. I imagine they were the ones losing employees as soon as they were allowed to transfer. No matter what you do, there will always be critics.)

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