For thousands of years, people have constructed cairns, a human-made stack of stones, as landmarks, monuments or tributes. These days, hikers will add a rock to a cairn as they reach a summit of a mountain or a turning point on a trail. The longer one sits across from Khalid Halim in Reboot’s San Francisco office, the more one realizes his sofa is a modern day cairn. Instead of stones, well-known tech leaders, angels and VCs have dropped their guard there—along with their stories, ambitions and fears. It marks the start of many technologists’ inflection points.
Halim is the cofounder of Reboot, a coaching firm that’s worked with leaders at companies such as Coinbase, Lyft, Kickstarter and Etsy, yet what’s more impressive than its list of clients is when Reboot started with them. Halim has helped a founding team of six people in an apartment grow into a now famous startup that’s 100 employees strong. He’s coached an executive team as its company grew from a 100-person, domestic startup with a $300 million valuation to a 1,000-person multinational valued at $5 billion. There’s an adage that being an entrepreneur is like building the plane as you fly it. Yet even before helping founders navigate their metaphorical flight paths, Halim literally fueled the tech community at its greatest heights. He’s the founder and former CEO of a California-based inflight catering provider for private jets.
As a sought-after professional coach and former turnaround CEO, Halim specializes in untangling complex company communications to help organizations build upon one narrative. In this exclusive interview, Halim draws from his work with Carl Buchheit of NLPMarin and expertise in neuro-linguistic programming (NLP) to reform the way leaders communicate with their teams—and vice versa. He dissects four meta models that've proven to be especially effective tools for the leaders he’s coached.
Rebooting the Operating System
The level of depth in Halim’s work on communication is alluded to in the name Reboot.io. “It’s a play on words. If you've ever called tech support because your computer is frozen or slow, you’ll be told to reboot it. People come to us when they’re unsure what to do next or how to resolve a crisis,” says Halim. “The ‘io’ of Reboot.io refers to the operating system. It’s a reconfiguration at a deeper level—not just installing the ‘new app.’ Whatever we work on that’ll help you run a better board meeting will also apply to your whole life. Any effort is at the core of what it means to be human among other humans.”
In the case of communication, a central component of a human’s operating system is the reptilian brain and amygdala. “I don’t know who coined the term, but you cannot come across a management or communication training program these days that doesn’t include the term ‘amygdala hijack.’ But how do you hijack an amygdala?” asks Halim.
“The primary function of the oldest part of our brain is to answer the question ‘Am I with like kind?’ In other words, if I’m in a group of deer, the amygdala first asks: is there a lion around? If the answer comes back ‘no, I am not with like kind,’ then the reaction to fight, flight or freeze is triggered,” says Halim. “The amygdala ‘hijacks’ any further processing until the animal is safe. If the answer comes back ‘yes’ then the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that make us uniquely human, can come online fully to engage and connect with others.”
The ultimate goal is to remove the unconscious triggers so that anyone on your team can have the full conversations they want—and need—to have. “There are specific meta models that have been developed to help people with different work styles, functions and perspectives more seamlessly communicate as ‘like kinds,’” says Halim. “Paying attention to these models and mirroring them back calms the amygdala so communication can actually happen. It’s not a ‘managers-only playbook’ or a ‘secret hack,’ but techniques that should be openly shared and used by every member of a team.”
Four Meta Models That Underpin Effective Communication
Yes, we know—there are countless pat tweets, blog posts and management maxims about communication. But it’s that insistent emergence that should validate its significance and its difficulty to execute well. So before jumping into the specifics of each meta model, here’s why Halim sees it as so central to leadership and company-building:
2) The team’s primary function is to coordinate action.
3) Humans coordinate action through communication.
4) Communication is based on each individual's values, beliefs and identity.
5) Values, beliefs and identity are filters for how we see the world and these filters are called meta models.
Developed by Rodger Bailey and adapted by Shelle Rose Charvet in Words that Change Minds, meta models are sequences of mental and lingual adjustments that lead to different behavioral outcomes. “Communication is not just about what you say, it’s about the reaction it causes in the listener. Often we think delivering a message is enough without checking to see if it was actually received. This can be made more efficient with attention to meta models. Lastly, communication is making sure there’s enough shared context for the person to act on what's next,” says Halim.
Meta models are categorized as motivational traits (how a person triggers or loses interest) and working traits (how a person treats information). As outlined by Charvet, here are four meta models—two “motivational” and two “working”—that Halim shares most often with clients:
TOWARD VS. AWAY FROM
This meta model is about motivational direction, specifically whether a person is predisposed to focus on goals to be achieved or problems to avoid. Here’s how individuals who classify as “toward” or “away” can be identified:
“Toward” people are motivated to achieve and attain goals. They have trouble recognizing problems, and are adept at managing priorities. They frequently use words such as “gain,” “obtain,” “attain,” “get,” and “achieve.”
“Away from” people are motivated to solve problems. They focus on what may be going wrong. They frequently use words such as “avoid,” “steer clear of,” “get rid of,” “exclude” and “not have.”
Halim coached a CFO who was frustrated with his CEO. “He told me that he went to the CEO and told him, ‘We need to cut 10% of our burn or we’ll need to lay off some of our staff.’ He couldn’t understand why he wasn’t getting through to his CEO,” says Halim. “I told him to do me a favor and go back to him and tell him you have to cut 10% of the burn but instead of telling him the negative consequence of not doing so, tell him what the company gets. Which is what? ‘Two more months of runway,’ he said. Great, say that.”
The CFO told Halim that that’s what he had said originally. “Not exactly. The CFO spoke of budget cuts and layoffs, not of the months of runway gained,” Halim says. “The CFO changed his statement and the CEO who had said no to the cuts, considered them when the CFO reframed his statement. The reality remained, except the CFO spoke initially of moving away from a full budget instead of toward more runway. When he spoke as a ‘like kind’ of the CEO, he used ‘toward’ language, which resonated. CEOs don't tend to be ‘away from’ people. They move toward the future.”
Of course, pure dichotomies rarely exist. “Studies have found that 40% of people are ‘toward,’ 40% are ‘away from’ and 20% are equally both. In fact, some of the most influential leaders are those who not only can identify if they are talking to ‘toward’ and ‘away from’ people, but can appeal to both,” says Halim. “In her TED Talk, Nancy Duarte unconsciously decodes this meta model at play when analyzing some of the great speeches of iconic figures like Steve Jobs, or Martin Luther King Jr., who famously said, ‘I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.’ King talks both about going away from racism and segregation and more toward a more enlightened future of equality. He appeals to both types of people listening to him.”
For each meta model, there is typically a question that can help determine which type of person someone may be. “To decode ‘toward’ versus ‘away from’ people, ask the following: Why is that [criteria] so important? Ask it up to three times to get to the heart of whether a person is moving toward that criteria or away from it,” says Halim.
Any action can be described as moving away from something or towards another. Like a glass half full or empty, how you see that movement has ramifications.
INTERNAL-REFERENCING VS. EXTERNAL-REFERENCING
This meta model is about motivational source, particularly if a person is driven by judgments from external sources or by referencing her internal standards. Here’s how people who classify as “internally-referencing” or “externally-referencing” can be identified:
Internally-referencing people make decisions based on their own internal standards. They say “only you can decide,” “you know it’s up to you,” “what do you think” and “you might want to consider,” as this language reflects how they make choices.
Externally-referencing people seek outside information and feedback to make choices. The language they use includes “_____ thinks,” “the impact will be,” “the feedback you’ll get,” “the approval you’ll get,” “others will notice” or “give references.”
Once a CEO reached out to Halim to discuss a conflict with his executive team and worsening relationship with a board member. “I started by asking about each of the executives. Eventually, I heard a similar refrain: ‘My board member vouched for him, saying he was among the best he’s worked with.’ It clicked,” says Halim. “I’d seen this before, especially with young, first-time CEOs. Like many in his position, he’d defer to a more experienced board member to hire an ‘all-star team.’ The result is that he brought on a team that worked well with his board member, not with him. One by one, we spent the next year assembling a new leadership team, relying on the board appropriately to source, vet, interview and close candidates, but not abdicating responsibility to the board to tell the CEO who to hire. A board is an invaluable resource for a leader, but a CEO must be sufficiently internally-referenced to make a final decision.”
In that case, there’s a clear distinction between when the CEO was internally-referencing or externally-referencing. “At times you'll see leaders—especially green CEOs or founders—who are very external. They talk to their board, investors, peers and direct reports seeking validation and get pulled along,” says Halim. “Alternatively, some CEOs are internally motivated because everyone has told them from the start that they can’t or shouldn’t do something.”
Determining if a leader is internal- or external-referencing is paramount to the team. “If you’re talking to a person who is internally motivated, you can't actually convince her of anything without her tapping into her personal experience. So, if I'm having a conversation with her about a decision for the company, I’ll need to reference a time before when the company did something and she changed her mind. Action will come from her knowing and recollection of that moment, not my convincing of her to do it,” says Halim. “On the other hand, appealing to externally-referencing people means giving your opinion and citing outside references.”
When Khalid works with founders, he’s often had the conversation that he refers to as “taking your seat as CEO.” “When a leader takes her seat as CEO, she realizes she has all the resources she needs, she knows what she needs to know to build the company, and respects those who've gone before her and the mistakes they’ve made,” says Halim. “Ultimately, it's about finding the balance of the two traits. Leaders shouldn’t be so external that they just listen to the board. Conversely, they shouldn’t be so internal that they blindly bulldoze a path and ignore the abilities of an able executive team.”
Silver Bullet Question. To determine if a person is internally- or externally-referencing, the helpful question to ask is “How do you know you've done a good job (at _______)?” Halim stresses how essential it is to know this motivational trait of leaders. He says, “It’s how they make their decisions. Do they stem from an internal knowing or an external reference? The former will say ‘I just know. I look at it and I’m really proud of what I’ve done.’ The latter will say, ‘People tell me I’ve done a good job.’ It’s simple, but so effective.”
A leader will fly the plane regardless. But there’s a difference between auto-pilot and co-pilot. It’s about making conscious choices.
SPECIFIC VS. GENERAL
This meta model is about scope, and informs the working environment people need to be most productive. This strategy helps define how big a picture a person can manage. Here’s how individuals who are either specific or general in scope can be identified:
Specific people operate with details and sequences. They cannot see the overview. They say “exactly,” “precisely,” “specifically” and supply details and chronology.
General people focus on the overview or big picture. If they handle details, it’s for short periods. The language they use includes “essentially,” “the important thing is,” “in general,” and they return to concepts.
For this model, Halim draws from an experience that is common across functions at work. “We've all had the experience of these two different styles. You probably get two types of emails in your inbox, right? One is a few bullets and the other is paragraphs of information. There’s probably one that annoys you and one that eases your whole system,” says Halim. “As it suggests, ‘general’ is a top-level overview, with the intent of communicating breadth—merely what’s going on. Whereas, ‘specific’ is the fine print or play-by-play, provided in deep detail.”
Halim’s client was a CMO who was crossing wires with her CEO. “Naturally, the CMO is about narrative, story and writing full accounts of her work. She’d receive response from the CEO in terse bullet points. She was convinced the CEO was angry at her, as she put her heart on paper and she got back three bullet points,” says Halim. “Knowing the executive team, I knew the CEO loved it, but it took walking the CMO through this model to understand what happened. The CMO was a ‘specific’ profile, while the CEO was a ‘general’ type.”
Without decoding this difference, there could’ve been continued confusion as their conversation played out over email or in-person. “It can devolve quickly. If the CMO receives bullets, she may think that the CEO doesn’t trust her with an equal amount of context or information, whereas quick notes could be the CEO’s style or intention, so as not to burden the CMO with excessive context,” says Halim. “If the CMO had recognized the preferred scope of her leader—and vice versa—the bottleneck and assumptions could’ve been sidestepped.”
In the case of the specific versus general meta model, Charvet nor Halim have identified a “silver bullet” question that can help decode ‘specific’ from ‘general’ people, but written and verbal correspondence is a leading indicator. Use an example of an exchange to prompt a conversation and determine the default of your executive team and colleagues early on.
SEE, HEAR, READ, DO
This meta model helps identify how a person is most naturally convinced. It zeroes in on what type of information a person needs to begin the process of getting persuaded about something. Here are the different types, how to identify them and the distribution of behavior out in the world, per Bailey’s research:
“See” people (55%) are influenced by what they perceive. They might say, “Oh, I saw that work at my previous company.”
“Hear” people (30%) rely on oral presentations or listening in versus leading meetings. They might say, “My board told me and that convinced me.”
“Do” people (12%) are persuaded through their own action. They might say, “Oh, I’ve done that before.”
“Read” people (3%) are swayed by reports, research or meeting notes. They might say, “I read it in a report.”
It’s key to remember that these channels are not necessarily how a person might intake information, but the pathway through which they are ultimately persuaded to act. “I recall instances when members of executive teams were trying to make their case to the CEO through the channels in which they themselves would most likely be convinced. For example, if the CTO was data-driven, he’d share stacks of reports with the CEO,” says Halim. “If that indeed was the right channel for the CEO, he’d have read the report and taken action. It would have saved everybody a lot of time. But it wasn’t his channel.”
Silver Bullet Question: To determine how a manager or colleague is convinced, ask: How do you know that someone else (an equal of yours) is good at their job? One of the earliest and recurring assessments in the workplace is how a person does his work. “We intuitively gauge others’ performance and typically do so periodically in formal reviews,” says Halim. “By asking how one knows if an equal is good at their job, you not only remove the additional noise that comes when evaluating someone on another level, such as a manager or report, but subtly hear the way in which they made the assessment. Is it by watching them, hearing good things, reading an evaluation or comparing them with yourself, if you’ve done that work before?”
The Tip of the Iceberg
Halim draws from over a dozen of these meta models, as developed by Bailey and advanced by Charvet. Yet, these models constitute only a sliver of one variable of a broader equation used by Reboot and its clients. The company calls this equation “The Bet” and here’s what it entails:
Practical Skills + Radical Self-Inquiry + Shared Experience = Enhanced Leadership + Greater Resiliency
“As you can see, The Bet is composed of three parts, but it’s the tactical skills--such as the meta models—that everyone comes to Reboot to learn. But to use a cooking metaphor, if I show you how to use a paring knife, that's a tactical skill—but it doesn't mean you’re a chef. It just indicates that you know how to use a knife, which also means you can do a lot of damage,” says Halim. “In a business context, this is the equivalent of getting tactical skills and advice from one’s board, investors or other CEOs and unwittingly building someone else’s company.”
That’s one of the very first points that Halim makes when clients walk in his office. Early on, he explains the two-pronged nature of his role. “I have two goals,” he says. “First, that you build the type of company that’s unique to the kind of company you can run. And second, that you don’t wake up one day and hate to come into work because you didn’t build your company.”
If its clients are willing to make “The Bet,” Reboot is confident there’ll be “a return.” In brief, here’s a bit from Halim about what each variable of the equation entails:
“At the core of radical self-inquiry is letting go of your ego. It’s not fake humility. It’s acting on the core truth that we don’t know what we don’t know and adopting a learner's mindset again. That means an acknowledgement of what brought you to this point and an authentic admission that you’ll need more self-inquiry to get to the next level.”
“The practical skills are the tactics, templates and techniques used to build a company. They can range from meta models to facilitate more effective communication to concrete ways to resolve conflict with your co-founder.”
“The CEOs who are ‘crushing it’ are privately emotionally-spent and worrying about the next big hire, raising funds, deploying teams and launching products. Shared experiences ground people in that actual reality—whether that means joining a conversation with your peers or hearing your issue articulated and analyzed by another.”
“Early on in a company, CEOs managing by pure force is actually what's needed. It’s the difference between launching a rocket and keeping one in orbit. Enhanced leadership is when the charismatic founder with a strong vision starts to enable people, a leadership team, to help bring the the company achieve its full potential. For the founder, that’s a moment of transition and an exhibition of greater resiliency.”
“It’s called ‘The Bet’ and not ‘The Formula’ because we don’t pretend that we have all the answers. But we are smart gamblers. We know the odds are stacked in our favor because we’ve seen it work so many times before in our practice and in our own lives,” says Halim. “Also, it’s a bet because we don’t presuppose that anything the other person has been doing is ‘wrong.’ It’s just the best strategy they have had so far and we want to acknowledge how far it has gotten them already. There’s not one way, but for each individual there might be a better way—otherwise we’d all take the template and build successful companies. Lastly, there's an inherent building of trust when someone accepts your bet and follows you down a path. That trust marks the beginning.”
Bringing it All Together
To take on the elements of “The Bet” with Reboot is to discard ego, embrace a learner’s mindset, honor but not settle for what got you here, and enable others to become more resilient yourself. The seed of this transformation is in the contours of how one communicates—and leads. The first step involves learning and applying basic meta models in each interaction with your team to help facilitate communication as ‘like kinds’ and work better together. Admittedly, this step is only the beginning of ‘rebooting the operating system,’ a fundamental practice that can bring empowerment and resilience to leaders, their companies and people.
“Entrepreneurs become extraordinary storytellers because they themselves are their own most loyal, eager and captivated audience. That is how they’ve fostered the type of conviction that allows them to ask for millions of dollars to build a company that doesn’t yet exist or to convince people to leave steady jobs to join them,” says Halim. “But they, like everyone, only use the best strategies they have—communication presets that were wired when they were young. The founder becomes a rare leader when she can communicate and resonate with all of her people. That takes a conscious change—an awareness, a mindfulness, radical self-inquiry—in communication. Only then do leaders get that it’s not about what is said, but what’s heard.”