CEO Conversations

Fostering Conversations: Jeff Shiefelbein on the moments that shape a leader

I recently had a conversation with Jeff Schiefelbein. Jeff is the co-founder and chief culture officer at 5, an energy advisory firm that’s been tremendously successful. Together, we spoke about the impactful moments from our youth that have tremendous impacts on our personal and professional lives. Additionally, he shared how he using “living an undivided life” to be a healthy leader, manager, father, and husband. You won’t want to miss this conversation.

Finding your personal and professional values at a young age

SHANE JACKSON: All right, Jeff. Thank you, man, so much for being here. I’m so excited about this. Let me first tell anyone watching who you are. Jeff Schiefelbein, co-founder and chief culture officer at 5. Number 5, which you figured out how to trademark. It’s pretty cool.

It’s a different story, which is an energy advisory firm, and we were just talking a little bit about some of the craziness going on in your world right now, given everything in the energy markets. But 5 is a tremendous company. Received a lot of accolades. INC 5000, Best Places to Work, all of that. You are also a very proud Aggie. I’m a big Texas A&M fan. I’ve got a niece who’s a freshman at A&M right now. And so, you’ve got to improve the football team a little bit, but it’s a good school. So no, just thank you. And you and I have gotten to know each other a little bit through Conscious Capitalism. And we haven’t spent a lot of time together, but the few times we’ve been together – I told my team, this is a guy, when we started talking, we just went deep fast and I just have so quickly come to respect you and your depth of insight and wisdom. Man, thank you for agreeing to let me record our conversation.

JEFF SHIEFELBEIN: Shane, what an honor, and I can remember that first time I ever talked to you. It was after an evening event and we did go very deep. So this just seems like the natural progression of a friendship that continues to flourish on both sides. So thank you for the opportunity.

SHANE JACKSON: Yeah, totally. So here’s just where I like to start. One of the things that I just love asking people is, “just tell me your story.” And what I’ve found with people that have had any kind of success in life, their story always includes something of like, “man, I went through this. I did not like it at the time. It was hard but now I’m so grateful for it.” And it’s just those kind of things. We screw up. We experience whatever when we’re younger. And so if you don’t mind, just tell us your story.

JEFF SHIEFELBEIN: Shane, I love this question and I think you’re right. There’s a common thread with all of us. Here’s my story. I was the youngest of four kids growing up. In fact, when we moved to Texas, I was five and my family found Texas A&M for my oldest sibling. And it just seemed like a place that fit our family. People were just nice to us. They were nice to me as a 10-year-old kid when she started school there. Well anyways, we had nonstop overlapping kids at A&M for something like 48 semesters. So my parents are like parents of the decade, right? So here I am, the youngest kid. I came in with more credit hours than any of my siblings but somehow took the longest to graduate. But the thing that I stood out for the most was probably being the wildest, kind of that feeling of invincibility that I had as a good kid who was a little bit of a punk. And so part of that was I got into the drinking and partying scene heavily, and I ended up, when I was a sophomore at Texas A&M, starting, getting arrested for driving while intoxicated one night. And by the grace of God, I had been speeding but not in a car accident. And I say that because I’m so grateful that I didn’t hurt anybody. And I can remember being in jail that night thinking to myself, “this is crazy.” My parents raised these great kids and here I am, sitting in a jail cell. And so I changed my life that night, and it was really hard to explain that to everybody else because of course, their youngest just got out of an overnight jail. As part of my process for pleading guilty as soon as I could. I was guilty of the crime. I pled guilty. I wanted the consequences and the punishment. I went to all sorts of meetings, fines and fees, and then a victim impact panel by Mothers Against Drunk Driving. And this was November 11 of ‘98. I share that with you because it’s one of the most important moments of my life. This mom was speaking about the death of her daughter, who had been on the side of the road changing a flat tire when a drunk driver hit her. She was in high school. And as the picture that she had of her daughter came to me, I can tell you what seat I was in. I can tell you everything about this moment because I got hit by an epiphany from God. And as I passed this on, I can remember thinking she looked just like a friend of mine growing up. What’s different between her and my friend, what’s the difference between me and the person who killed her? And I couldn’t come up with anything other than here I was. So I felt called to go and do something. And fast forward to pretty much an hour worth of stories I could tell you. A year later, I launched a program at Texas A&M that was a 501c3 nonprofit organization and a student organization that had 500 people applying for 300 spots through competitive interview and applications so that they could give up their nights and weekends to drive other people home in an environment that allowed those folks to feel safe. And I launched this program. It’s a really long name. It’s CARPOOL, the acronym, but it stands for Caring Aggies Are Protecting Over Our Lives. Shane, within three months, it became the most successful designated driver program in a college town in America and it was noted by people all over the U.S. And I sit here and I look back at this time where I realized that I was a good kid making a stupid mistake, and so I made sure that my story was front and center to all of the recruiting, to all of the messaging, to all the corporate sponsorships. And I went and studied every other program I could in the U.S., and I found that most of them were failures, not in concept, but in actual progress, in productivity. And so there’s these really cool principles that we based it on. A lot of it is like my brain thinking about business logic and rallying people to get to do something really special together. And so fast forward, it was that arrest that caused me to become a leader of a nonprofit. I then launched a second nonprofit and brought my model to other schools all over. I know you’re not too far from this one. My second program ever was at the University of Georgia. It was “Watchdogs” and now there’s dozens of these. And I realized very early on that I was maybe just driven by something about the way organizations develop and human beings develop and getting the very best out of people and creating a culture where people say, “I get to go work tonight, not I have to go work.” In fact, the members of that organization paid student fees to be members of it, so they didn’t get paid for their work. They paid to give up their nights and weekends and they were excited about it because they were part of something that had a bigger vision than them and a common vernacular. Anyway, hugely successful. To date, 22 years old, CARPOOL has provided almost 300,000 rides home – not to other bars, clubs or parties – for people in need. If you take all the other programs, we’re probably well over a million rides home and it all stems from that moment. And I got to tell you, the rest of my life kind of just keeps trickling in place. At first, people thought I was a nonprofit expert. I’m not. I’m a people expert. I’m a culture expert. I realized as a young 20-something, I was sitting in boardrooms full of men and women that were 20, 30, 40 years my senior and I was watching them make mistakes that I knew weren’t going to play out the way they expected, and it was from this kind of take my 10,000 hours and cram it into just a few years of launching this program. The program also allowed me to then be a guest lecturer. I mean, at 22 years old, I was lecturing in college classes. I continue that today. I then went on the circuit. I do a lot of motivational speaking and they named something after me at A&M, they named a freshman orientation camp in 2008, Camp Schiefelbein. That’s where I ended up meeting a young counselor named Amanda Brown. And when that whole camp was over, I told her, “I’m pretty sure we’re supposed to get married, so we should probably start dating,” and this shy little girl is now my wife and the leader of my giant family. So the worst moment of my life, sitting in that jail cell crying like a baby, has turned into business opportunities to personal growth, to a chance to go deeper in faith and then has just unfolded just moment after moment. So I think it’s one of the most crucial pieces of the story of who I am and how I came to be a leader of my organization here or in all the nonprofits that I touch as well.

SHANE JACKSON: Man, it’s such a great story, and so many things I’m thinking as I’m hearing that. One is the, where you started, is the gratefulness. I mean, it was bad. You’re 20 years old in a jail cell. But wow, it could have been so different. Right? And I think all of us have those things that we go “there but by got grace of God. I was given this opportunity through this – this could have been so much different.” One of the things too, though, you and I didn’t talk about this beforehand, but I want to see if you have a thought on it. One of the things that I’ve found for people who have a lot of success is often that they’ve been able to come in touch with something that is their passion. It’s not just a job. I’m not just trying to build a company, make a lot of money. They have somehow figured out that thing that they’re passionate about and, in what I heard weaved your story was, it wasn’t just that you were passionate about making sure people were safe instead of driving drunk. That really instilled the discovery of the passion that it was really about people.

JEFF SHIEFELBEIN: One hundred percent. And I love that you picked this out of here because this drives me, right? It’s this human flourishing component, or even more so the formation of human flourishing that I love because I made so many rookie mistakes early on. Mistakes like I have to know everything. Everything had to go through me. Because of that, I was exhausted and hospitalized at one point and I started through, like natural law, learning that that’s not a good way to lead — that the cult of personality and being the smartest person in the room are two terrible ways to build up a team that can A/flourish but B/outlast the founder, right? I had to graduate. Then we have 100 percent turnover of this organization every four years, so I quickly shifted the whole model. It was about extreme empowerment, right? The subsidiarity of giving people the utmost autonomy and responsibility to do something that they are capable of doing. Treating them like fully formed adults. Making them know that if you’re aligned with the vision of where we’re going and you can adhere to these values that we hold core to our beliefs, then you can do whatever you want in between. You’re not going to sink the ship if you try a different mechanism, or you do a little bit different messaging or you set up the operations differently. And there’s really cool breakthroughs in technology that people have had in leadership. And what I love is watching that when you give people that much responsibility and you trust them and you tell them you trust them, to just see them come into who they’re supposed to be, right? To be the best version of themselves. I get a lot of passion out of that. It is exciting for me to watch that. And you’re right, one more time when I think about the gratitude, I got to spend the night in jail. I didn’t have to, you know, I know they arrested me, so technically I have to. But the mindset that I got to go to jail was so much better than the alternatives that it makes every day a blessing that we get to X, right? Get to deal with some hard stuff in our jobs or whatever. But yes, I have a passion for people and the development of people within an organization.

SHANE JACKSON: There’s also a lot of good stuff in there for young leaders. And while you’re talking, I’m having all these flashbacks because I love seeing students — people in their 20s or whatever — starting things and leading things. I had a similar set of experiences and similar set of mistakes: I know I need to be the one that knows it all. I have to have all the answers, whatever. And it’s typically the exact opposite, but also developing that discernment to know, OK, when can I allow people to do something that I don’t think is the right thing versus when do I need to insist on it? It takes a lot of maturity and that awareness of what you’re trying to do with other people. God, that’s huge.

JEFF SHIEFELBEIN: Shane, I knew when I was in the hospital for about five days with an exhaustion condition, basically, that I’d become a liability to my own organization. I never wanted that. I want to be an asset. I want to be a value add. But if you’re the one person that knows everything and has to control everything, the organization is only as good as you and only as healthy as you. And that is not what we’re meant to be. We’re meant to be multiplicative, right? We’re supposed to co-create together in something special.

You’re a leader – the organization is only as healthy you.

SHANE JACKSON: That’s a great quote. I completely agree. I want to pick up on something that you mentioned only very briefly, which is this big growing family that you have. We hear, and rightly so, the challenges for working mothers. They are unique and they are real. Trying to balance being a good mother and being productive in the workplace and achieving all those sorts of things. It seems to me we don’t hear as much around the challenge of being a working father. Maybe because people think we’ve been doing it longer and so we ought to know. Or whatever that is. But as a man who is highly interested in raising great kids, being a great husband, there is a unique set of challenges and approaches to that. And I know this is something you have a ton of passion around and a lot of opinion on. And so I would love it if you just talk for a few minutes on that topic.

JEFF SHIEFELBEIN: I love this question. Thank you. I do think the roots of this are just this old school paradigm that the man goes off and works, and that’s the role. And that has shifted a long time ago. But somehow we have this legacy thought process there. If you look at my personal priorities of God before my wife before my kids before all else, then I have to live that, right? I have to be able to have the behaviors and the actions. It doesn’t mean there isn’t crunch time where I have to work hard on a project. So my wife and I right now have five beautiful children, ages eight to one, and then we’re expecting our next one in August of this year. Number six is coming fast and we are so excited. And it’s been fascinating to me because I can remember before I had kids watching somebody in a business environment. He had two young kids at home, and somebody walked in — he actually still works with me today. That was 16 years ago. Somebody walked in and said, “oh, I bet it’s exhausting when you get home.” And he said, “make no mistake about it, the best part of my day is walking in my door from a long day of work and then taking care of my girls and getting engaged with them and playing with them.” And I loved that he didn’t say the typical, “yeah, it’s a handful” or “I would rather be out at the bar,” or whatever people just say – that’s just words coming out of their mouth. And I watched everybody in the room change their tune. And from that moment on, thanks to Eric Bratcher who works with us at 5, thanks to that moment, I’ve always said that language matters. And so I refuse to do that water cooler talk about how being married or having kids or having a lot of kids is a drag or how exhausting it is. Like what a gift. What a blessing it is that I took a kid to a soccer game, that I had a sick kid the night before. I mean, I get to be dad to all those people. So for me to go ahead and live through the behaviors and the actions, the priorities I just said, then I’m going to make sure that I set up my schedule so that I’m not working when I’m present to them. And so my rules of engagement are after about 5:45 at night, you can email me if you want to but I’m not going to be engaging in that outside of emergencies. And nobody emails in an emergency, by the way. I’m going to focus on my family. Well, that’s a pretty busy time sometimes, right? So my schedule is I’m going to wake up super early because I am a morning person. I knock out an hour of work before I go and get the kids up and start doing breakfast and hanging out with them in the morning. So it’s a real special time for me. But that rule of engagement says if somebody wants to work on a Saturday morning or a Sunday afternoon, great. But don’t be firing off emails to the whole company or to your direct reports because you’re hijacking a time that they’ve carved out for their mental break and their personal relaxation and the health of that individual – mind, body, soul, family, community – whatever it is, the health of that individual is only going to lead to be a benefit for the company. So I want them to be as healthy as possible. I want them to have the best home life possible. I want their best self showing up at home. So instead, if you want to work on a Sunday, go for it but just schedule your emails to come out the next day and keep going back to that language of the fact that we are very lucky to have the people in our lives that we care about. So let’s speak about them in a way that’s uplifting and positive and not in that typical, “oh, it’s such a bummer.” I mean, I consider fatherhood and I consider my relationship with my wife to be my primary vocation. And then I get to use these other skills to be a contributor and an important part of 5 or any of these other groups as well.

Living an undivided life

SHANE JACKSON: All right. I want to get you to talk about this phrase. I don’t know if you coined it, or you heard it somewhere. I learned it from you. I’m stealing it from you, I’m just telling you right now, I’m going to start using this phrase of “an undivided life.” It’s a great phrase. So just talk about what does that mean to you? How do you apply it? 

JEFF SHIEFELBEIN: This dawned on me in two ways early career. One was those exercises where you rank yourself, how are you doing spiritually? How are you doing intellectually? How are you doing in your community and health and fitness? And those are good things to rank. But it was trying to say, if you’re a seven here and you’re a three here, then you should change your time. And I kept thinking to myself, “some of these don’t make any sense to me.” Community is just me. My faith is just me. It’s all at the forefront of those other things. So I said, I’m done with this division of acting like a certain day of the week is for faith or a certain day of the week is for community or friendship or family. I’m just going to put it all together and kind of unleash myself into that. And then I can also remember feedback like, well, you can’t have a personal relationship with people who work for you. And I think that’s fundamentally false too. I love having a personal relationship, it doesn’t have to be a friendship all the time. There are people who like different things than me and have different views than me. But a personal relationship where I actually know this person and we’re vulnerable to one another in a way that we’re able to understand what makes each other tick and how we’re able to find our stride allows me to be a better leader for this person and to appreciate the different parts of their life that they’re in and to help to pick them up whenever they need an extra hand or give them a little bit more of the work whenever they’re hitting their stride because they know that they can run with it. This concept of undivided life and living an undivided life has really kind of unleashed in me the ability to just have freedom. And it’s freedom to be present. And to get out of my head, to get out of the story, to stop worrying about which version of me is supposed to show up. So work, church, family, or at the bar. It’s just Jeff. And by the way, somehow five and half years ago, I got a chance to launch a show on a Catholic radio station called “Undivided Intention.” It’s just that my intentions are undivided and coming soon to a website near you, I bought the URL and I’m working on the website for my speaking called Undivided.Life. So put it out there and it’ll put more pressure on me to go ahead and finish out the website.

SHANE JACKSON: Love that. I want to prompt you to talk about how you apply that to work. The passions, the values you have that impact all of your life, but especially for someone like you in a leadership position. Influence over these great resources, influence over these people that work with you every day. How are you living undivided? How does that show up in your work?

JEFF SHIEFELBEIN: So I’m going to take it to the absolute core of it and I hope this is a place that listeners can connect into. I’m very, very strong in my faith. I am Catholic, and when I study and understand my faith and as a reflection of a love for the teachings of Jesus Christ, it actually informs the part that makes me a more inclusive leader. I’m called to seek truth, love and justice. I’m called to be in solidarity with the poor. I’m called to take care of the least of these of my neighbors, and that could be in work. It could be people that disagree with me. It could be the extreme poverty that people are living in that I don’t get to see firsthand in my own community. And so I even think about the world of sustainability. For me, my connection all the way back to caring tremendously about sustainability is that a population, a less advantaged population is going to be more inversely impacted by waste, by climate change, by anything that would create pollution. And so it’s actually my Christian faith that causes me to say I have to do more personally and professionally related to sustainability, that I have to find a way to take people who in an organization like this — 65 employees across the U.S. and Mexico — I have people on both extremes of the political equation and on both sides of every kind of debate, the most heated debates of all time. How do we create places of dialogue by not being stuck in our heads and not being behind the veil of a label, but helping people to see that a human being can talk to a human being and have an incredible dialogue, even in disagreement? And I’m able to bring that to work because a long time ago, I just decided that I was going to just own who I am — own who I am in family, in faith, my gifts at work, my shortcomings at work. And then that allows people to latch on to one another almost like a puzzle piece. It becomes very beautiful when you stop trying to be all things or have the perfect outward appearance of who you are. I’m just a puzzle piece, so there’s holes in parts of it. There’s parts that stick out and it doesn’t fit everywhere, but it certainly finishes out something pretty beautiful.

SHANE JACKSON: That’s so great. And I’m so grateful for your transparency in the way you share on these things because to your point, the values and the beliefs you have and for you, and I feel the same way of this movement by the teachings of Jesus. They inform all the things you talked about, right? The way you’re viewing your time with your family, the way that you’re viewing your work, the way that you’re viewing where you spend your time, all those sorts of things. And man, undivided life, that’s great. Thank you, man.

Jeff Schiefelbein
Chief Culture Officer, Co-Founder 5
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