digital workforce millennials next generation employee engagementDigital transformation is an urgent imperative. Today’s talent are either shifting to, or have already become, digital natives. These employees expect a collaborative, flexible, high energy, purposeful and inclusive workplace. Companies that get digital leadership right perform better in the marketplace and have happier, more engaged employees.

But, leadership is complex during a digital boom. Combined with rising voluntary attrition rates it’s essential that today’s leaders understand how to successfully support talent development to retain and engage the leaders of tomorrow.

In 2016, SAP SuccessFactors and Oxford Economics surveyed 4,100 global executives and employees for a study titled, “Leaders 2020: How Strong Leadership Pays Off in the Digital Economy.” Based on that study, here are seven ways to create tangible business impact in a digital environment.

1. Build trust. Trust is foundational to become an inspiring and capable leader. High trust levels confirm and legitimize hard work to establish a strong, functional relationship with team members. These behaviors build trust:

  • Invigorate: Create a sense of purpose for team members. Help them connect the dots and feel their work is valuable, that the team depends on their contributions.
  • Immerse: Promote accountability. Give back to the team and the company by facilitating development activities or offering informal/on-the-job instruction. Contribute by sharing personal points of view to create an environment where everyone is a teacher and a learner. Generosity will help to drive trust and underscore a commitment to building an effective learning culture.
  • Include: Welcome participation; seek out others’ opinions and ideas, and spread influence to team members, encouraging their contributions and impact.

The “Leaders 2020” report states that companies that cultivate a diverse workforce and take a broad range of employee perspectives into account are better poised to succeed in a global economy. The study found 56 percent of digital winners — companies defined as high-performers — have more mature strategies and programs to build diversity, compared to just 48 percent of other organizations. However, the study also found that diversity levels are not where they should be for most companies.

2. Encourage peer learning and coaching. Besides formal, instructor-led or virtual learning, mentoring and coaching can make a world of difference on performance. But according to Leaders 2020, only 46 percent of executives say their company devotes resources to develop the next generation of leaders — a bad sign for future leadership.

Coaching allows employees to assess their readiness for bigger and broader responsibilities and career plans. Feedback from a coach will help them to understand their strengths and development areas. Setting goals keeps them focused.

Mentoring is about partnering with a colleague who is a little further along in their career — to enhance knowledge, skills and self-awareness in a certain area. The mentor supports the client via long-term support, guidance and by sharing relevant stories and examples from his or her own experience to build career success.

Bersin by Deloitte reports that mentoring also helps talent and boost employee engagement: it provides an expanded diversity and inclusion/career management effort; and it offers access to numerous networking opportunities such as enterprisewide employee community groups and dedicated mentoring/sponsorship for those with diverse backgrounds.

3. Communicate clearly. There is a balance between how often and by what means leaders communicate with their teams. While conventional team meetings can’t be avoided for important and time-sensitive topics, they can still be creative and productive:

  • Share the podium so it’s not a one-way conversation.
  • Have the team put away their mobile devices. Mobile technology has a place and a time, but in meetings, it’s generally unnecessary and distracting.
  • Assign a different person to run the meeting each week so they are accountable for capturing key points, keeping things on track and ensuring a productive gathering.
  • Use social platforms for meetings to: establish communities that are easy to use, design and implement; share team goals, project status, research and upcoming events; and allow for team collaboration and a strong sense of connectedness.

4. Manage direct reports’ performance. All employees need meaningful feedback to support their growth. Performance, goals, development plans and learning can be connected and managed in one digital framework. Set team goals that include a stretch assignment, shadowing, rotation or a new learning opportunity, and set aside funding for learning when a free web-based training module doesn’t quite fit the bill.

5. Develop others. During busy times, it’s easy for employees to deprioritize learning and development to focus on more demanding tasks and deadlines. Don’t. Promoting a culture of self-development — in which everyone takes ownership of their careers and individual development plans — must always be a priority.

Learning leaders must ensure employees focus on their careers, and enable them to perform their best. Many readily available virtual, on-demand and MOOC offerings do not require a great deal of research time, budget or preparation to participate in. These digital experiences help build knowledge and expertise. Also, accessing learning via mobile apps provides just-in-time tools and reinforcement.

The happiest employees are more likely to routinely go above and beyond the minimum requirements for a job, and are less likely to leave their company if given the opportunity, according to Leaders 2020.

The report also states that 75 percent of digital leaders — executives at organizations deemed digital winners — actively encourage all employees to participate in learning and development programs, compared to 51 percent of other executives. Eighty-one percent of digital leaders report that top talent can advance quickly, compared to 61 percent of other executives.

6. Foster innovation and agility. Technology can’t solve everything. Design thinking is a user-centric approach that addresses business challenges in innovative ways. Ideating is at the core of this process. Anything that needs improving — values, processes, products and standards — should be considered for this methodology.

7. Partner for success. A digital leader has unlimited options available to support a team, including:

  • Virtual instruction, gamification and MOOCs.
  • Social platforms to strengthen community and network connections.
  • Apps to use as on-the-job resources.
  • Collaboration platforms for meetings and workshops.
  • Other established performance support choices include:
  • Peer-to-peer learning, such as coaching, mentoring and shadowing.
  • Fostering innovation through design thinking, organizing brainstorm sessions, and promoting diversity of perspectives and backgrounds within groups.
  • Bolstering trust by communicating transparently, being reliable and taking personal responsibility.
  • Teams look to a leader as their most important guide and advocate. They need help understanding company strategy so they can make the right decisions for the business and their development, and they need coaching and mentoring to help them align their strengths to their work, and achieve their desired career goals.

Ultimately, lead and teach an organization’s future leaders. Leverage the digital workplace to help them collaborate, connect and communicate with a focus on the future to position an organization for extraordinary results.

Julie Abel-Hunt is the global lead, implementation and learning at SAP. Comment below, or email