Terry Kramer is taking it all into context

Flight Templates are templated flights, or sets of questions, written by some of the world’s preeminent business leaders. With Flight Templates, Balloon users get unparalleled access to seasoned perspectives and proven business strategies across all areas of business, including leadership, product, marketing & sales, innovation, employee experience, culture, and more. This feature is part of a series on The Insight that profiles Balloon’s Flight Template authors.

In a world where it is increasingly clear that there is no true black or white, good or bad, right or wrong, Terry Kramer is more sure than ever that context is key.

“‘Context matters.’ I first heard that phrase from the CEO at Vodafone, and I remember thinking, ‘What a trite expression. It doesn't have any meaning,’” said the former executive at the global telecommunications company. “I know now that it, in fact, has a massive amount of meaning.”

Kramer, now a professor of decisions, operations, and technology management at the UCLA Anderson School of Management, explained that among a leader’s most critical responsibilities are to create an impactful vision and to define a corresponding strategy that will help that vision come to life, but both of those duties require a nuanced understanding of relevant context. In many cases, team members, both individually and collectively, have initial views about what a “good strategy” looks like, but outwardly “good” strategies so often fail to acknowledge external context: changing consumer needs, new capabilities that create new product options, a competitive landscape and new competitors, a regulatory landscape which demands consideration of public stakeholders, and so on. This makes alignment surrounding external context—both the good and the bad—critical: only with proper alignment can an effective strategy be developed.

This is the basis for contextual leadership, of which Kramer is a long-time proponent. Through his 18 years in cross-departmental roles at Vodafone, his experience serving under the Obama administration as the head ambassador of the U.S. delegation for the World Conference on International Telecommunications in 2012, and his current life in academia, Kramer is certain that truly universal practices are rare. Consumer preferences, technology capabilities, competitive landscape, public policy issues, company culture and capabilities often vary by nation, industry and company.  Kramer says that leadership must take all these factors and perspectives (and then some) into account in order to make the best possible decisions.

“Too often, as leaders, we think we've got kind of a playbook, and we think that’s all we need to succeed. If it has all the best practices from past leaders, we can just easily go execute, right?” Kramer said. “The reality is, we have to really look at the environment in which we’re working. And we have to know what success looks like in that environment.”

Recognizing and analyzing context is so pivotal to the success of not only individual organizations but also the entire business world that it has become a huge part of Kramer’s pedagogical strategy. Each quarter, he aims to ensure that his students leave his class knowing, if nothing else, that the world is colored in shades of grey. Kramer’s newest course, which he will teach in the spring of 2021, approaches the importance of nuance from the perspective of technology—the good, the bad, and the unimaginable.

“As a professor, my job is to present this information in a way that will minimize the chance of students becoming absolutist or ideological and think ‘Tech is all good,’ or ‘Tech is all bad,’” Kramer said. “The reality is that, as a business leader, you’ve got to be somewhere in between.”

Although Kramer’s professional path has not been linear, there is a clear theme: He operates at what he calls “the intersection of business, technology, and society.” Of course, as the reaches of tech continue to expand and permeate all facets of life, Kramer holds that contextual leadership can—and should—be applied not only in the tech industry but in every business sector. In order to set leaders up to have the necessary conversations that will add context and perspective to their potential decisions, no matter the industry, Kramer crafted his three-part flight template series, Mastering Contextual Leadership, to guide the discussions.

  • Contextualizing the Landscape
  • Defining What Success Looks Like
  • Contextualize the Future

As a man who so deeply rejects the good-bad binary, Kramer often finds himself asking a tricky question: If there are no “right” answers, how do leaders shrink the likelihood of error and guide their companies toward success? And in a time when uncertainties abound, what is the role of leaders anyway?

“The world is a complex place, and the role of leaders and CEOs has gotten more complex. When I was in business school, there was a heavy focus on the role of customers and shareholders, but now people say, ‘What about employees? What about public stakeholders? Elected officials, regulators, et cetera?’” Kramer said. “So if you're leading an organization, you have to take those people, your vision, and what's going on in the world into account, and ask yourself, ‘Based on all this, what is the best path forward?’”

True to form, Kramer’s answers to those recurring queries often shift, depending, of course, on the context. However, Kramer knows one thing to be sure.

“While there is no divine answer, there are answers that are more right than wrong.”

Check out Terry Kramer's Flight Template Series

Professor of decisions, operations, and technology management, Anderson School of Management at UCLA