Here’s How to Help Your Front Line Lead a Digital Transformation

Being a front-line manager is never an easy job, but apparently the people who interface directly with the vast majority of employees are feeling a bit even more overwhelmed. The reason? According to a recent survey, due to a lack of employer support they see themselves as ill-equipped to handle the task of creating a more innovative, tech-driven workplace.

The Frontline Leader Project, from DDI Inc., reports that frontline leaders are “anxious about their digital skills and are craving more support.” The findings from the global-leadership consulting firm are part of the second phase of an ongoing research effort devoted to the issues facing first-level managers.

In this phase, DDI compiled survey data from more than 9,700 global front-line leaders and managers as well as its database of more than 13,700 front-line manager assessments. The data strongly indicates those managers and leaders want their employers to help them meet the digital transformation many employers are making.

“Front-line leaders are in a tough position as the bar for success keeps getting higher and higher,” says Stephanie Neal, director of DDI’s Center for Analytics and Behavioral Research. “This group of leaders is responsible for so many critical functions, from attracting and retaining talent to fostering innovation and driving adoption of digital technologies. But while expectations of front-line leaders are rising, they aren’t getting the coaching, training and support they need to be successful.”

Key DDI findings include:

  • Leaders are struggling to see purpose–Despite the fact that purpose plays a critical role in driving engagement and financial performance across the company, most employers are failing in translating purpose to leaders. While 90% of HR respondents say their company has a mission statement, only 28% say their company has one.
  • Coaching is in high demand–57% say they want more coaching from external coaches. Furthermore, half say they wish their manager would coach them more.
  • Failure is not an option–”Failing forward” has become a buzzword as employers are pressured to deliver greater innovation. But only 7% of leaders say that their organization greatly embraces failure in pursuit of innovation.
  • A lack of training in all things digital–While HR identified digital skills–including digital literacy, leading with digitalization, and leading virtual teams–as among the most important skills for leaders in the next three years, frontline leaders report that they are not very confident in their digital skills. As noted, help is is not happening, with digital skills are getting short shrift in most manager development programs.
  • Classrooms are still in demand–Technology and learning seem an inevitable pairing, yet 59% of leaders say they want more traditional classroom learning. Among millennials, it’s higher, as 65% of whom said they wanted more formal workshops and seminars.

What can HR do to respond? DDI’s Neal says one of the key ways HR can help alleviate stress for front-line leaders is to foster a coaching culture. She explains that half of leaders are looking for more coaching from their own bosses, so it’s critical to train and encourage your mid and senior-level leaders to be strong coaches. In addition, leaders strongly desire coaching from outside sources, Neal says, so HR needs to make it a focus to set up external coaching relationships for front-line leaders, whether for general leadership advice or for specific areas of help, such as tech-related issues.

HR also should be reassuring leaders that they don’t have to be technology experts to become great digital leaders, Neal says. Rather, they need to be able to spot potential applications of new technologies, listen to their teams to spot issues and opportunities related to technology, and model the adoption of technologies and tools that can help their teams have greater impact.

“These digital skills are built on traditional leadership skills like driving innovation, adaptability and coaching,” Neal says, “but HR’s job is to help leaders grow and leverage these skills to keep technology at the forefront of their work.”

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Tom Starner
Tom Starner is a freelance writer based in Philadelphia who has been covering the human resource space and all of its component processes for over two decades. He can be reached at