In this episode, we learn why soft skills matter and how to better develop yourself personally and professionally with Divon Academy, whose exceptional workshops can be found on our platform. Visit thriver.com/podcast to listen to the episode.
Almog Bar: Welcome everyone. My name is Almog and I’m the Senior Manager of Partnerships here at Thriver. Joining us this week is Elan Divon — author, teacher, social entrepreneur, and the president and CEO of Divon Academy. Welcome Elan, how are you today?
Elan Divon: It is a great pleasure to be here with you. Thank you for having me on the show.
Almog Bar: We’re really excited to have you today, and equally excited about our topic. We are going to be talking all about soft skills, what they are, how we can develop them, and why they’re important in the modern workplace. But before we get started, could you tell us more about yourself?
Elan Divon: There are so many elements to this story. One of the reasons I founded Divon Academy was this: back in 2007, I graduated from Harvard with a second master’s degree. I wasn’t a great student growing up — I was an average student in high school — but somehow I found my passion and really dug in as a grad student. And then, I ended up getting two masters’ degrees, one from Harvard, one from Brandeis. I had some work experience under my belt, I was working in New York previously in marketing, and I’d run my own nonprofit. So I was feeling pretty good about myself when I graduated and was about to enter the workforce back in 2007/2008.
Almog Bar: Perfect time to enter the workforce.
Elan Divon: Exactly. Compared to 2021 it might have been perfect, but it was certainly one of the worst of the worst times. So I’m entering the workforce and feeling really good about myself. But I stayed unemployed, I couldn’t get a job — I got rejection after rejection after rejection. And the reason I was unemployed for almost a year was not because I didn’t have the academic pedigree, not because I didn’t have a good work ethic. It was because I didn’t have the right mindset. And I didn’t have the right skill set. I simply wasn’t prepared for the workforce. And I realized that.
I created this academy because I saw that so many young people out there are getting great degrees but are not prepared for the workforce, because the world of work is changing. There’s a disruption. Young people are not developing the right mindset, skill set, and soft skills, but these are what companies today are looking for. A lot of us come out of grad school as young professionals thinking, “the world is going to discover us, we paid our dues,” but it doesn’t happen. And so one of the big driving forces for me in creating Divon Academy was addressing this issue of preparing young people for the workforce.
There’s a disruption. Young people are not developing the right mindset, skill set, and soft skills, but these are what companies today are looking for.
Almog Bar: Amazing. I couldn’t agree with you more. When I was in school, half of the people would say, “Make sure you get good grades, that’s all that matters.” But the other half would say, “Grades don’t matter, go figure out what you love to do or what you’re good at.” I think the real answer is a combination of the two. I don’t know many engineers who graduated with top marks, and it took them months to find a job, or they didn’t know what they were going to do next. So I absolutely agree.
But first, let’s take a step back. You alluded to this, but for those of us who don’t know, or who might need a refresher, can you tell us what soft skills are? What do they really mean and what is a situation where you would use a soft skill?
Elan Divon: Very simply put, hard skills are what you do, and soft skills are how you do it. For example, hard skills are all the technical skills you learn if you’re an engineer, a program designer, or a coder — whatever you’re doing, you’re learning skills. These hard skills are your tools, but your soft skills are how you apply these tools. I love this analogy that Dr. Vivienne Ming, a neuroscientist and AI expert, uses. She says, you can have great tools, but tools without a craftsman are pointless.
The soft skills are what make the craftsman. One example I love to bring up is this: let’s say you have two medical students. One is getting 60% or 70% in their courses, and one is getting 100%. At the end of the day, however, they both graduate and become doctors. In fact, as a patient, the one you’re going to actually want to visit, the doctor you want to treat you, will be the one who has more empathy, who really cares about you and your physical and mental health. You will want to see the doctor you have chemistry with, the one who has emotional intelligence. Obviously, you want your doctor to be competent, and that’s the baseline. But beyond that, it’s the soft skills that mark the difference between being a good doctor and an exceptional doctor, a good engineer, and an exceptional engineer. It’s the difference maker.
Almog Bar: I love that. I especially love what you said about hard skills — they’re what you do, and soft skills are how you do it. It’s funny, you mentioned doctors — I read something earlier this year about how the average doctor takes 11 seconds before they interrupt their patient as they’re describing their symptoms. So, you’ll start saying, “I have this, this, and this,” but they’re already trying to cut you to the chase by diagnosing you. As a patient, you can tell the difference when a doctor is listening to you and paying attention — it doesn’t matter what grades the doctor got in school.
Elan Divon: Yes. And listening, by the way, is one of the most important soft skills related to EQ. We all want to be heard, certainly as a patient. So, to your point, we will definitely go to the doctor who will listen to us.
Almog Bar: Exactly. My next question is a two part question. One, as an employee, as someone who checks into work everyday, why should I care about soft skills? And why should I, as an employer, care? Why shouldn’t I be targeting the top engineer, the top mathematician, or the top artist for my team? Why should I care about these softer skills?
Elan Divon: Beautiful question. We’ll unpack this in two parts. To the first point, if you’re a young professional out there, you should care about soft skills because they are the biggest predictors of your success. A predictor used to be your IQ, your intelligence and technical skills. But today, that only accounts for 25% of your long-term success, it takes you to first base. Seventy-five percent of your success as a professional is predicted and predicated on three simple things: your mindset, your emotional intelligence, and your ability to handle stress — these are all soft skills. So, the majority of your success as a professional in any field is predicted on your soft skills. That’s why soft skills are important.
75% of your success as a professional is predicted and predicated on three simple things: your mindset, your emotional intelligence, and your ability to handle stress.
Now, if you’re an employer, the future of your company essentially depends on soft skills, it depends on your ability to train and develop the best humans. The issue here is automation. AI is here, It’s disrupting everything. And it’s going to be taking away so many human jobs that involve computation and data analysis and crunching numbers. And so when you strip all that away from an employee, what’s left are the real human skills. Creativity, collaboration, communication skills, the ability to listen, have empathy, build rapport, and close deals through strong client relationships — these are crucial soft skills. If you’re an employer, your most important strategy when it comes to learning and development needs to include soft skills development. And this is coming from McKinsey, the Boston Consulting Group, KPMG, and Deloitte. A couple of years ago, Deloitte released a study that said that any skill you learn on the job will, in five years, become half as valuable as it is now, and in 10 years, it’s going to become redundant. So because of the pace of technological change, skills are changing very, very quickly.
What employers need is to have employees who are adaptable and resilient, and have the kind of mindset that can rescale and retool. Employers need employees who are flexible and can push through change in adversity and uncertainty. These traits require soft skills, such as a healthy mindset, EQ, and stress management. Dell came out with an interesting point in a study they conducted — they found that the ability to learn a new skill, to take on new knowledge, is more important than the knowledge itself. This is because the skills are changing all the time. They’re changing in every industry, certainly in the tech industry. In any industry, the ability to keep learning, adjusting, and developing are crucial. That’s the human skill, it’s a soft skill. And if companies don’t develop that in their employees, they will not own the future.
For example, Google, a company that is predicated on STEM, did a couple of studies back in the day. One was called Project Aristotle, which wanted to see which of their teams had the highest performing members, what their top skills were. They looked at high performance teams, and seven out of the eight top skills were all soft skills. It wasn’t that these teams had the best technical people, the best engineers, the best guys with the best GPA scores, no. These were the teams that had the best leaders and professionals with emotional intelligence, collaboration skills, communication skills, etc. Soft skills, actually, even at Google, are the number one predictor of success.
Almog Bar: Wow, how many companies took that and actually implemented it? Do we know?
Elan Divon: The smart companies are picking it up. If you’re a company that’s really looking toward the future, you’re looking at what’s trending, and you’re looking at reality and the data out there, you need to understand that this is critical. A simple way to look at it is this, the future is becoming more automated, with robots and computers. As an employer, do you want to invest in robots or in human capacities, in the humans who created those technologies in those capacities? I’d rather invest in the people who created those things than those things themselves, right? The computers and the AI support the work. But the real work of closing deals belongs to humans. I’m still backing the humans. This is why soft skills matter.
Now, the problem is that — and this is why a lot of companies are having issues with younger professionals in terms of retention, engagement, and performance — technology is actually eroding soft skills in all of us because of our over-dependence on screens. The interesting thing is that these skills are needed the most in the workforce right now, but they are being eroded and schools and universities don’t teach them now. So when young people come to the workforce, they’re not prepared.
Almog Bar: I hear a lot of things about the millennial generation with regards to a lack of engagement and entitlement, meaning there is more turnover. How are we doing in this field? How are we doing with soft skills? Are we really that far behind our parents?
Elan Divon: Millennials are not as bad as Gen Z. Obviously, there are many millennials and Gen Z who have amazing soft skills. I’ll give you a classic example to illustrate the point of how technology changes the mindsets and the skill sets of a young person. I have a friend in Toronto who is a successful business lady and she has a son who’s 17 years old. Every weekend or so she would drop him off at his buddy’s house to hang out. At the house, instead of knocking on his friend’s door, he would take out his phone and start texting. Now this is in Toronto — it’s frigid outside, but this doesn’t matter to my friend’s son, he gets out of the car and texts instead of knocking on the door. My friend finally asked him, “Who are you texting?” He says, “I’m texting my friend to come open the door.” She asks him why he’s doing that and he says, “So I can avoid the awkwardness of dealing with his parents or his siblings and get straight to my friend.”
In previous generations this was impossible — you could not text, you had to knock on the door, you had to say hello to mom and dad and deal with that social interaction. Today, screens and texting eliminate it, so we’re not exercising those basic muscles. If you’re growing up in that generation and that’s all you know in terms of how to communicate, then you haven’t exercised your EQ muscles or your mindset muscles. This is the issue.
Almog Bar: I love the idea of treating soft skills as muscles that need exercise and practice. I think there’s a camp of people who look at the robotization the digitization of our world, and say, “If I have an hour, if I have a day, if I have a week to learn something to study, I’m going to go learn these technologies, because the world’s changing so fast, I have to keep up.” When really, it’s the act of learning, it’s the act of social interaction, it’s knowing how to be comfortable being uncomfortable, that is a lot better than knowing how to code Python right now, or how to do a discounted cash flow for your finance major.
Elan Divon: Absolutely. The former CEO of LinkedIn, Jeff Weiner, said in 2019 that soft skills are more important than learning how to code in today’s economy. So he’s saying it, all the experts are saying it, and again, the data shows it. For example, Yuval Noah Harari, the author of Sapiens, says skills are changing all the time. The workforce is changing, technology is disrupting stuff, and the only asset that you have that is transferable to any job is your network. Your friendships and your relationships are your biggest asset, and they come from people skills and EQ. In fact, the number one reason you get into the job force is through networking. When you’re actually in the interview, it’s not your resume that matters most, it’s the rapport you have with the people interviewing you, right? Do you fit in? Can you fit into the culture? Are you someone who’s pleasant to talk to? In fact, the number one reason people leave a job is not because of money, or salary, or conditions. It’s because of a bad relationship with your direct supervisor or boss. The metrics suggest that if you want to rise up in the company, you need a good relationship with your boss, you need to get along with people. That’s where it’s at and it supersedes your experience and your IQ. Your EQ is most important.
Almog Bar: I love that. Also, on the note of job hunting: the resume, the experience, the skills, they’ll get you in the door, but it’s the soft skills that get you the invite to come back. I love that. Okay, I think you’ve convinced all of us that soft skills are important. They need to be worked on, they need to be developed, but how do we do this? How do we actually develop soft skills? Could you also get a little bit into Divon Academy and how you guys are approaching it?
Elan Divon: First, if we’re working with a company or just talking to young professionals, we focus on strategy. A person’s career development strategy is important. We need people and companies to align with the fact that developing soft skills is one of the most important strategies for success. Once we do that, we get into the second (and important) step which relates to engagement and purpose. Our goal is to get companies to draw from their employees and understand their discretionary energy. Discretionary energy is energy an employee is willing to contribute to their employer outside of a job’s basic requirements. Every company dreams their employees go all-in for them. Employers want employees to stay the extra hour and do everything to make the company shine. One of the things Divon Academy does is we help professionals identify their values and their sense of purpose so that they’re in a better position to align with the values, vision, and mission of the company they’re working for.
Our goal is to get companies to draw from their employees and understand their discretionary energy. Discretionary energy is energy an employee is willing to contribute to their employer outside of a job’s basic requirements.
There are ways to get young people or anybody to elevate the meaning of their work, and to connect their sense of purpose with the purpose of the company. I think you want to have employees who are self motivated, who see their job not just as a way to make money, not even as a career, but as a calling where they identify their client’s emergency, the pain points they’re solving. That’s really important. When it comes to soft skills like EQ and stress management, our big mantra is, knowledge isn’t power. When we talk to professionals or companies, it doesn’t matter if we deliver a nice presentation, because knowledge isn’t power. Knowledge is power in potential, and common sense is not common practice.
For example, this morning, when you and I woke up, we knew that we should meditate, do yoga, have some walnuts, goji berries, and blueberries. Most of us know that they’re all good for the brain, but we don’t always do these things. Knowing all the good things we should do isn’t the same as actually doing them. It’s all about action. The problem with action is that 95% of our action is based on habit, it’s autopilot. So our mission at Divon Academy is to change behaviour so we can improve a company’s culture. To change behavior, you have to change habits, so we are very focused on getting professionals to change, essentially, their habits for the better, and build better mindsets, improve emotional intelligence and stress management.
Almog Bar: I love it. One of our last Thriver Podcast episodes was all about building powerful routines, looking at how one habit or one super habit can ignite a domino effect. We found that focusing on one thing can actually have effects throughout your life, whether it be meditating or exercising. If I exercise once a day, the rest of the day I’m thinking more clearly, I’m less stressed, I’m more present, I can get my work done. But I also liked what you mentioned about how knowledge is not a power and action is the secret ticket. That’s the moneymaker. I couldn’t agree with you more. I think that doing is a soft skill in and of itself.
For example, at Thriver or at any business, there are a lot of people who come with ideas about increasing business or bringing value to the customer. A lot of times it’s a great idea, it’s the right thing to do, but it doesn’t matter until you use soft skills to convince your boss or persuade your CEO to give your idea a shot. Even if you have all the numbers, the hard facts, if you’re unable to present them well and persuasively using your soft skills, nothing’s going to get done.
Elan Divon: Exactly, you’re so right. And you illustrated how a good mindset helps. As you say, a lot of people have great ideas, but do you have the wherewithal, dedication, and persistence to push through with your idea even when it doesn’t work the first time, the second time, the third time? Do you believe in your idea even when it gets rejected? It’s great to have that persistence, that conviction, the soft skills to sell your idea to your boss by communicating it effectively. Without soft skills, ideas are nothing.
Almog Bar: Exactly. Tell me Elan, what is one thing that an employee or a team leader can do today to get started on their journey to improve their soft skills and become a better employee or employer in the future?
Elan Divon: One thing they can do is contact Thriver and get in touch with the Divon Academy. But even more immediately, a really important first step is how you start your day. Most of us start the day by going to our cell phones — this is wrong on so many levels. We have different brain states: the alpha, beta, and theta brain states. When you wake up, your brain state is a very receptive, creative, and open state, between dream and wakefulness. But when you go to your phone, you kill that. You’re looking at other people’s emails, agendas, and texts. You look at the news. This is like going to your garbage and taking a whiff first thing in the morning. You wouldn’t do that. But that’s what we do when we look at the news. The news can wait, all the crazy things going on in the world can wait.
Instead, take the time to either meditate or do some exercise or just get the heart rate up a little bit. And then sit down by your computer or sit down by your desk and think about your goals for the day. Consider three things that you want to do that will make your day productive in terms of immediate assignments or big projects, and put in the time to do it. That is much more effective than letting our brains be hijacked by other people’s agendas, tweets, and messages.
Almog Bar: I love it. I am guilty of doing just that. And knowing how important morning routines are, it is something I’m going to make an effort to make sure that I prioritize.
Elan Divon: It is tough. Almog listen, I have to tell you I struggle with it. I have to keep the phone away, I can’t see it, touch it, hear it, whatever. Because the number one addiction today in the world is smartphones. Scientifically, they give us the same chemicals in the brain that alcohol and drugs do when we are addicted to them. And so if you’re an alcoholic, would you have a bottle of tequila or gin by your bedside or by your side table? No, you wouldn’t do that. But we have our phones, which we’re addicted to, at our bedside. We need to have the discipline to create the environment that allows us to be more disciplined, because if you don’t do that you’re setting yourself up for failure. What I try to do is I’ll shut off my phone and put it on a different floor of the house.
Almog Bar: I love it — plan for the future you. Exactly. You’re proof yourself. And I love it with the news as well. I have this saying that I tell my friends whenever they complain about the constant stream of news — whether it’s that COVID-19 cases are going up, or where vaccines can be found in Canada. The news is 60 minutes, no matter what, if nothing happens, it’s still going to be 60 minutes. They’ll always find something to tell you. And then it doesn’t have to be the first thing you go. I love it.
We have a segment here at Thriver that we do every year or every week on our episodes. It’s called the Scaredy Cat Segment. It’s where we ask all our guests to share one big fear they had growing up. And if you could, could you share that, as well as how you overcame it or managed to cope with it.
Elan Divon: My biggest fear growing up was public speaking. I was terrified. Even having this conversation with you would have been very difficult. When I got up in front of people, I had a physical reaction: heart palpitations, excessive sweating, everything became a blur, and my head would spin. It was a real visceral reaction. In university, for example, I was one of those students who hid in the back of the class, I never raised my hand, I just really had a tough time speaking in any public situation. And I knew deep down that this was almost an indication of something, I knew this was a part of my purpose in life, that I needed to communicate. And I had a lot that I wanted to communicate, so I took Toastmasters, and I pushed myself into that fear, into that tension, into that discomfort, bit by bit by bit.
In a couple of years, I was running a peace camp, I was doing live television, I was talking to hundreds of people. But even then, even when I had these moments of talking to large auditoriums, there were always slip backs. It was like taking two steps forward and one step back. But I continued pushing into the fear to work at it. This is not to say that a little bit of nervousness before any big talk is bad, in fact it’s a good thing, so you can turn nervousness into that adrenaline and that positive stress and excitement. Now, public speaking is a part of what I do and I love it.
This goes back to something we talked about earlier, which is that growth and comfort cannot coexist. If you want to grow and develop proficiency in anything, you have to step into discomfort, and so mindsets are really important. But again, technology is eroding that mindset, it’s making our threshold for discomfort very low. So I guess I was lucky to have the kind of mindset to just do it and just push into it. But that was my fear, public speaking.
growth and comfort cannot coexist. If you want to grow and develop proficiency in anything, you have to step into discomfort, and so mindsets are really important.
Almog Bar: I love that — being comfortable being uncomfortable. I think that’s the message. I think every one of us grew up with this fear of public speaking, myself included. So thank you for sharing that with us. It must have been hard to cope with. It’s a very slim line between feeling nervous and feeling excited, so the fact that you were able to turn those nerves into excitement is a really good lesson for people.
Elan Divon: Yeah, and again, it goes back to your point that only through doing could I understand the problem. I could have philosophized about why I feel nervous, about what was going on, I could think about it in different ways. But that isn’t as effective as just speaking: I had to just do it and do it and do it. It’s about the habit of doing, which helped me to rewire my brain to have a different experience while I’m doing it. I was finally able to say, “Hey, I can actually do this and not feel weird, and not feel like I can’t see the room because my head is spinning.”
Almog Bar: Amazing. Elan, thank you so much, we really appreciate you joining us. Where can people find you?
Elan Divon: At Divon Academy.
Elan Divon: Awesome.
Almog Bar: But that’s all the time we have today. Thanks, everyone for listening. And thanks again, Elan, for joining us.
Elan Divon: Awesome. Bye!
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