The Level Up Leader
Episode - 7

Overcoming Unconsciousness with Jay Guilford and Michael King

On today’s episode, I am joined by Jay Guilford. Jay is the founder and co-partner of CoWorks Leadership Strategists. Jay has an incredibly fun and diverse history of working with big brands like Cirque du Soleil and has some really big dreams for the future.

If you have a brain, you have bias. We all have unconscious bias; it doesn’t make us bad people. Our brain wants to make sense of the world and the people around us. We categorize and label things and people so our brains can move fast.  It’s actually tied to your survival. 

But check this out.

Forbes Magazine states that “Unconscious bias if left unchecked, can impact employees’ productivity, sense of belonging, and retention rates. One survey found that workers who reported experiencing workplace bias were 33% more likely to feel alienated, 34% more likely to withhold ideas and solutions, and 80% would not refer people to their employer.”

Regarding unconscious bias, today’s guest is doing what he can to champion equality, diversity, and inclusion and address unconscious bias in some really creative ways. 

Welcome to the Level Up Leader Podcast.  I am your host, Michael King.  I am an executive coach and founder of Teams.Coach, LLC. I work with C-level leaders to clarify and expand the vision, elevate performance, and Level Up their Leadership.

On today’s episode, I am joined by Jay Guilford. Jay is the founder and co-partner of CoWorks Leadership Strategists. Jay has an incredibly fun and diverse history of working with big brands like Cirque du Soleil and has some really big dreams for the future.  Please welcome Jay to the podcast. 

Jay shares that his greatest leadership tip is ensuring your weekly feedback systems were relevant and effective.  Even here at Teams.Coach, we design our feedback systems to ensure that we clearly communicate our weekly goals on Monday, follow up on progress midweek, and then clearly land the plane.  Did we meet goals, or did we struggle this week? 

Jay points out that it’s in our human nature to steer away from critical feedback because we are wired to feel like it leads to conflict.  Remember, whenever we avoid giving fair and accurate feedback, the tension becomes greater because the results never change. 

A special thank you to our featured Artist, Names Without Numbers, for allowing us to use their music.  We decided we wanted to feature music that I produced on the that’s pretty cool.  

Music Artist: Names without Numbers

Where to find Jay:

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Teams.Coach Facebook Page

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Michael King 0:00
Forbes magazine states that unconscious bias if left unchecked can impact employees productivity, their sense of belonging, and even retention rates. One survey found that workers who reported experiencing workplace bias were 33% more likely to feel alienated 34% more likely to withhold ideas and solutions and 80% would not refer people to their employer. Today’s guest is doing what he can to champion equality, diversity and inclusion and also address unconscious bias in some really creative ways. Welcome to the level of leader podcast. I’m your host Michael King. I’m an executive coach and founder of teams dot coach. I work with sea level leaders to clarify and expand the vision, elevate performance and level up their leadership.

On today’s podcast. I am joined by Jay Gilford Jay is the founder and CO partner of CO works leadership strategist. Jay has an incredibly fun and diverse history of working with big brands like Cirque du Soleil, and has some really big dreams for the future.

Please welcome Jay to the podcast.

Mr. J. Gilford, welcome to the level of leader podcast.

Jay Guilford 1:28
Hey, Michael, how are you?

Michael King 1:30
I am super great, man, thank you so much for making time to be with me today. Easy. So we’re gonna dive in. And before we kind of get to leveling up and talking about the things that that we’re about, I want, I want our listeners to be able to know a little bit more about you. I’ve gotten the Cliff’s Notes version. But what makes you tick, tell us a little bit of your story. Well,

Jay Guilford 1:53
well, a lot of things make me tick right now I’m really, as you know, focused on helping leaders to level up and I’m not just plugging your podcast for you. That’s been my life’s journey for the past 15 years. And, you know, I started there, because I was a bad leader. I was, you know, I gotta admit, Michael, I was a bully boss. So if we can start there, that’s probably where my origin story for my work began. At the ripe, I would say young age of 24, I was handed a director’s position. And 12 direct reports. And the great thing about my leadership style, then, is that I was very direct, and very assertive. But the horrible thing was that I was very, very direct, and very, very assertive. So, you know, over the course of years with mentoring, and a lot of training and direct feedback from my direct reports, I changed. So my origin story in terms of my work was really being a bad boss, and leaving some body bags along the way, and then figuring out that there’s a better way to do it. So I was young, I made some mistakes. I did some things great. And then I decided to make my life mission to help people like me be of any age, who are in leadership positions, and you just haven’t been taught to be emotionally intelligent. How to do that. Yeah, I started with me failing at work actually. So longer, shorter. Yeah.

Michael King 3:25
It’s it’s funny that you mentioned emotional intelligence. And that I kind of, I kind of feel like that EQ is something that is probably going to be one of the most important things we’re talking about in leadership space, at least for the next decade. And but you had an aha moment in there. What What was the aha moment that made you go you know what, I don’t necessarily know, if I’m in touch with emotional health, what does what did that look like for you?

Jay Guilford 3:49
Well, there’s a lot of them. That’s I would say, it happened, I would say maybe seven or eight years afterwards, where I was mentoring, one of the people who worked with me one of my direct reports. And it was eight years afterwards. And I felt like I’d made this change. And, you know, he told me, he said, You know, I am still intimidated by you, you’ve changed his life, but I still can’t tell you certain things or I shy away from you, or I’m afraid to talk to you, because you were so harsh and critical. So that was when my aha moment came. And then seeing other leaders, I coach, you know, executives and sometimes I’m coaching the person whose name is on the product, or on the building and seeing them and understanding that they we are not taught how to handle our emotions at work, just seeing people at work executives who are very well meaning and who also have emotions, and being on both sides of the desk. I understand that it’s a skill that we’re just not taught. So you know, having left the body bags and unfortunately intimidated my employees early on. It helped me to understand that we need to look at this at work we have to.

Michael King 5:05
That’s really great. Now you when it talks, when you talking about your work history and the things that you’ve experienced in your life, you have a pretty colorful past with, you know, being a nominee. I know you’re a coach now, but you’ve done things with Cirque du Soleil and a bunch of other things. Can you share a little bit about some of those journeys? Oh, yeah.

Jay Guilford 5:22
I mean, the shiniest thing on my resume is that I say I worked with a bunch of clowns. Yeah, some people feel like they work with clouds. I literally work with clowns. And for your listeners, if they jump onto my LinkedIn, they can dig down and see pictures of me with clowns. For a little over six years, I worked with Cirque du Soleil and at Cirque I led the development of Cirque du Soleil is corporate leaders leadership training program. So we taught executives and their teams collaboration, communication and trust, by strapping them in to Cirque du Soleil equipment, and flying them high across the surface, at least guys, so in that way, they experienced those concepts in real time. So we didn’t just say trust your team members or take risks. They had to trust your team members. And they literally took you know, physical risks, you know, safe but physical risks. Yes.

Michael King 6:18
That’s, that’s amazing. I was. This is probably back in February of this year, I went to a mastermind retreat with a bunch of the executive coaches that are in my tribe. And the the team training event that the kind of spawned on us completely blind. The van pulls up in front of our Airbnb we all load in and they take us out to the country to a circus tent that’s out in the middle of nowhere. And, and the next thing you know, like our training event that we were doing together, was a bunch of middle aged chubby white people flying through flying through the air on high flying trapeze is in my body. Did I respond?

Jay Guilford 6:58
Well thing, some people trained for 20 years to do it, and some people just are thrown into a van. Right?

Michael King 7:06
That’s exactly. So well, man. Well, tell us a little bit about your level up leader story now, every year what I like what I love about our format, and and it’s just this, this concept of origin. Right? And I think you and I chatted a little bit in our pre show interview, is that the why really matters and the motivation behind leaders in matters it really does when it especially kind of comes to their impact and influence and and who they’re leading and why they’re doing it in the first place. But the the catalyst moment, there’s a moment that happened in your life where you’re like, you know what, I think I need a level of my leadership game. What did you do? How did it happen? And what do you what would you have to share on that?

Jay Guilford 7:48
The one that comes to mind now since we were talking about the circus was going to Cirque du Soleil and having I think I had a bit of arrogance around it, because, you know, I have Ivy League degrees, and I felt like, I’m gonna lead their leadership program and I know exactly what I’m doing. I was not prepared for the level of operational excellence necessary to to execute it circus LA. So I remember, you know, feeling pretty confident and going into the theater and saying, I’m gonna run my first production meeting, and then walking upstairs, backstage, it’s 830. At night, the show is thumping. I walk into this room, and it’s all of the heads of department. They’re on their walkies. And then, and then they’re asking me questions about my agenda. And Michael, guess what? I was not prepared enough to answer the questions. You know, I remember in that meeting, at some point, having an anxiety attack because I realized that I was on a level six, but they wanted from zero to 10. They want 12. And they were 12. And so I walked away, and I was embarrassed. And everyone knew that I was unprepared. And someone pulled me aside and said, Never are you to ever come to a production meeting at Cirque du Soleil, unprepared, like you were and it comes down to size. I had a lot of ego and you know, I came prepared the next time I every single meeting, I came prepared, I learned for the scrim but I learned what the percentage was I learned with a bomb was a gobo they hit me with terms I didn’t know so I would say my my level of there was letting go of the ego and really living up to the level that you want to live up to.

Michael King 9:34
You know, that’s that’s such a practical and and an applicable principle to we were just talking about this in one of my classes I was teaching the other day, just the idea of when you’re not teachable, it really ends up translating and being not very trustable. And that you had you had a moment there where you could have put on the pride hat and just FADEC faked it until you made it type of thing. But I think what you find out in leadership is that faking, it will only go a certain level before you start to leak, you know, to start to see through the cracks, right? Yes. So that’s awesome. So you had a moment where in which you realized that you just kind of had to embrace some humility. Yeah. And and learn from learn from that and take your leadership up to the next game?

Jay Guilford 10:28
Yeah. And I would say, after that, what was interesting, I came with a high level of arrogance. And then for the next, I would say, five production meetings across various shows. I had impostor syndrome, because I just didn’t know the things that they were asking me about. They would say, what type of wash do you want on the stage? I don’t know what that was, you know, what do you want to see us go about? I didn’t know what that was. At some point, I realized, especially at Cirque du Soleil, when you’re going from Mystere to O to car to you just can’t fake it until you meet you. I just didn’t know. So when I was able to raise my hand humbly and say, I don’t know what you’re talking about. People really enjoyed jumping in to help. Even though I was leading the endeavor, everyone was a huge part of it. So I would say the leaders, you don’t need to know it all. That’s why you have a team. And once I realized that, it just took the weight off. I don’t know what you’re talking about. Please teach me.

Michael King 11:26
No, that’s, that’s incredible. That’s so good. So now you so that’s what you’re doing, then share with us a little bit about what you do now.

Jay Guilford 11:36
Now, I’m founder and Managing Partner co works leadership strategist, we do virtual and in person trainings. And we’ve worked with x in the last 16 months, we’ve worked with a bunch of companies, I don’t need to name the names, you can see him on the website. And what we focus on are those core leadership skills to help teams work better together, whether you’re working virtually, or working in person. So we teach emotional intelligence, resilience, how to give and receive direct feedback, that’s been one of the most popular lines. And another that’s been really popular is the real business. Why behind diversity, equity and inclusion, moving that conversation beyond the moral stance, that’s really important to have a moral stance about it. And beyond the moral stance, why is that important to your business? Why is that important to your brand? Why is it important to your bottom line?

Michael King 12:28
That’s fantastic. What are some, what are some of your big win moments that you’ve you’ve experienced over the last couple of years, especially kind of coming out of COVID, and all that stuff?

Jay Guilford 12:37
Well, I would say, you know, fortunately for us, because we had a strong network and reputation, we were able to, you know, you know, work with clients, like Procter and Gamble, the Empire State Building digimarc. So we kind of, I don’t want to say we floated through, we still, we may we stay busy during COVID, which was helpful. My biggest when I would say is, you know, changing people’s minds, especially around diversity, equity and inclusion. It’s been, it’s been powerful for me as a black American person to talk about it and really position it in terms of bias and helping, I’ve seen the aha moments, we have a specific opening that we do. And I’ve seen the aha moments where people understand what unconscious biases and that we all have it. And really disarming and it’s not a judgment of view is not a judgment, we all have it, and we can all change. So that’s been coming up with that way to approach it in a way that’s not like yelling at folks, or blaming people that’s been really powerful for our team and for the teams that experienced it.

Michael King 13:45
That’s so important. Thank you so much for all you do. That’s absolutely fantastic. Just kind of as we’re we’re getting ready to land the plane here a little bit. We’re really talking about a couple things. So one number one question is, what are some of the best practices that you’re currently seeing being put into play in the leadership space? As we’re in, you know, 2022 and beyond

Jay Guilford 14:07
best practices, I would say, for us, it’s been feedback. It’s been giving team members consistent frequent feedback. So we’ve seen situations where everyone a lot of the organization’s we’ve seen they were able to pivot virtually, which was really great. And at the same time, when you are not in a shared environment, what happens is that by nature of being in a shared environment, you can see what your team members are doing, or they walk past a desk and they can say, Oh, I have to send careens this thing this document or do this thing, or you have those. You walk in and you’re from sales and you see someone in marketing or you talk to the new coordinator, that’s not happening. So it’s been really important for leaders to give direct feedback and make time for it. So one best practice, I would say just a tactical practice. I’ve been telling leaders to have a meeting on Monday with your team have a meeting on Wednesday and have on Friday, one on Friday, Monday, set the goals. See if people hit them on Wednesday, give them feedback about how they’re proceeding and Friday, give them the praise and give them the criticism so that they can move forward and do better. So feedback, feedback, feedback in a virtual world is really important because you’re just not seeing them around in your environment to grab them and tell

Michael King 15:24
them something. Brilliant. Brilliant. Yeah, that’s one of the things we’ve we’ve actually built into our teams that coach app for our, for our executive leaders, is that them and their teams they get they get they get a nudge on Monday morning. That’s, you know, that’s called the Monday minute to remind them of of that, you know, get your team in proximity. What’s the what’s the what’s your main target goal for this week? You know, what, what is that? Wednesday’s, your Wednesday, wake up, just to remind you what you’ve already committed to. And then your Friday finale, let’s party, we nailed it, we got it done. Let’s celebrate the wins together. Or Michael, I would say

Jay Guilford 16:01
you didn’t nail it and you didn’t get it done. Those things are important because what we’re seeing with leaders is that if I can whacked for it for a minute, we’re biologically wired to not want to give negative feedback because it feels like conflict in our social environment. And we want to avoid conflict. It feels like you’re being chased by a tiger but socially chased by a tiger. You don’t want to say anything unpopular to your team members in a virtual environment, it’s really important because they’re at home, and they’re not going to see you they’re not going to see the look on your face. Or it’s just you got to say it. So I would say in addition to that Friday finale, like you did it, I’ve been coaching a lot of executives who say you got to tell them when they didn’t do it, so that they can do it. Because otherwise they’re going to feel successful for six months, and then you’re going to put them on a pit. So I would say giving that feedback, that praise and that constructive criticism is really important.

Michael King 16:54
Fantastic. That’s so good. All right. So we have the love of leader podcast group on Facebook, and I encourage everybody who’s listening to check it out, but you’re in there as well. So we’re gonna, I’m gonna go ahead and just lobby you a question really quick here is this is this, what is your single biggest challenge you’re facing right now as, as an entrepreneur, as a coach, and as leader?

Jay Guilford 17:18
The biggest challenge we are why we are launching a new offering. It’s bringing artists from from Broadway’s stomp Cirque and other places, to corporate environment to do the training. And I think the biggest challenge for me is patience. Because I have done a version of this before it circuit. I’m like, let’s get going. And I have agents working with me and I’m, I have a team behind me and I have a person who’s saying slow down. There are technical things we have to be concerned about. And you know, if you want this type of delivery needs to be organized in this way. So for me, it’s the patient because when I have a vision, and I’m like, let’s let’s power through, I’m ready for it. And I just get on the horn and I start to talk to people and do things. It’s the slowing down having the patient and really trusting your team members when they say if you wait three days, we can put things in place that are going to make it 10 times as good. So patients good patients, patients patients. Yeah.

Michael King 18:20
Yes. Patience is patience is huge, man. Man, you’ve got it. You’ve you’re a joy. Thank you so much for being with me today. If people want to get a hold of you and reach out how do they do that? Well, they

Jay Guilford 18:32
can. LinkedIn is James Guilford DUI L as in Lima Fs and Fox Oh, r&d. So I go by J Gill for but you gotta see on LinkedIn, James Guilford, you can reach out to me there or you can email us at contact at co works lead that calm contact at co works or just visit our website cowork leadership strategist.

Michael King 18:55
I love it. I love it. Thank you again so much for being here today. Everybody. This is Jay Guilford, you are a brilliant man. And I’m excited to continue to to build our relationship.

Jay Guilford 19:06
All right. Thanks a lot for having me, Michael.

Michael King 19:08
You bet. Have a great day. All right. Thank you for joining us today on the level up leader podcast. If you enjoyed this episode, consider leaving a review on Apple, Spotify, YouTube, or wherever you get your podcasts, it helps to get the word out and make sure to like, subscribe and follow so you get all of the episodes. Now Jay shared that his greatest leadership tip was ensuring that your weekly feedback systems were relevant and effective. Even here at teams that coach we design our feedback systems to ensure that we clearly communicate our weekly goals on Monday, follow up on progress sometime during the midweek and then clearly land the plane on Fridays. Did we meet goals? Did we struggle this week? Now Jay actually pointed out that it’s in our human nature to steer away from critical feedback because we are wired to feel like it leads to conflict remind Number. Whenever we avoid giving fair and accurate feedback, the tension always becomes greater because the results just simply don’t change. Please stop by the level up leader group on Facebook and interact with Jay, we’d love to see you there. Also a special thank you to our featured artists names without numbers for allowing us to use their music. We decided we only wanted to feature music that I’ve personally produced on this podcast. So we think that’s pretty cool. To find out more about everything that we’re up to please check us out at And don’t forget to join our Facebook group at