Founder Spotlight with Robert Rasmussen Part 2
^ LISTEN TO THE INTERVIEW ABOVE ^
I'm excited to have Robert Rasmussen, CEO and founder of Agile Six, back with us. In our previous episode, we uncovered the journey and vision, revealing the story of how it all began—make sure to take a listen or read it if you haven't. Today, the story continues with immersing ourselves in Robert's journey and the heart of cultivating an authentic workplace culture, driven by values and the collective pursuit of purpose. Discover how the power of 'we' authentically unfolds to create a better place to work.
The Power of The Collective
Q. You've created a better place to work, a workplace that genuinely prioritizes people and purpose. How did you do it?
A. I immediately react to the attribution that I did anything. I think that's important. We are all products of our culture, and our appetites are products of our upbringing. I was programmed like most Americans to believe that anything is possible. That's still in me, but then I was reprogrammed in another society to say that anything is possible through us, through the village, through the collective. In Norway, we have something called Jante's law. It's an egalitarian value. You should never think that you're greater than the community.
So, I'd push back on the idea that I did anything, except have faith that anything is possible, and that purpose is abundant if you go looking for it. But it's also that anything is possible through the power of "we" and not the power of "I". If anything, I would say I was open to be grateful to the people who accepted the invitation to walk with me on this journey and participate in a collective pursuit of purpose.
Choosing Purpose-Driven Work
Q. One of the most important questions I have for you is: why did you choose this kind of work, and why does it matter?
A. As I told the story, this company was somewhat launched out of an existential crisis. When I came back from Europe, I decided that my career was short, that life is short, and I was going to do something that made a difference. I got into government work through military family programs. This was largely because I had a great deal of empathy, having been an enlisted father, in providing better support for our nation's warriors and our nation's military. From there, it was easy to see the potential agency of the government and some very important missions besides the military.
Why is the work important? I like to say that the US government is the single largest-funded potential agent of change in the world. If we're going to seek out purpose, yes, there are challenges with how it works, but there are also opportunities. If we can get up every morning just to nudge the government in small ways in the right direction, there's a lot of purpose in that. We have intentionally chosen agencies that are healing agencies, agencies that are about providing critical health services and dealing with pandemics, equipping the family of the warfighter, and the veteran services to heal the warfighter. We chose this work intentionally because we were needed here and can make an impact.
It can be frustrating to work with the bureaucracy, but the mission these bureaucracies deliver is crucial. They provide services for the most vulnerable people, including the families of our country's heroes. There's a ton of purpose in providing healthcare for our grandparents or veterans or delivering those services more efficiently, being ready for pandemics, or offering better support for federal employees. We try to look for work that we all agree is critical to our national wholeness and well-being.
The Evolution of Company Values
Q. Let's talk about the core values. How do they contribute to the identity and success of Agile Six?
A. Our first values were established early; it's one of the first things we did. As I mentioned, we went up into the mountains to a cabin and sat down. We asked ourselves, what do we have to offer the world? What are we going to do as a business? And then, how are we going to do it? With what values are we going to approach it?
We had some really deep conversations. It was very transformational in getting to know each other. I remember very long debates about the word “integrity”. Integrity was my thing from the beginning, but you might recognize it's no longer on the list. Having been through an existential crisis, I couldn't proceed without commitment. Others, to their credit, realized the weight of using such a word and the follow-through that would be required. After the debate, and to their credit, they bought in.
What's important to me about the values we live by today is that we live them and that they're still relevant. To stay relevant, they had to evolve. They didn't get lighter or easier; they adapted to who we are, just like they did in my personal story. My values changed when I lived abroad. One of the most important things we did was to let them evolve with the collective. I hope that for those who are here now and in the future, our values aren't written in stone, but continue to evolve to reflect the company and collective, even if that might not include me or you. Simply put, they're things we value.
Q. Our core values today are purpose, wholeness, trust, self-management, and inclusion. Which one resonates the most with you and why?
A. They all hit me on different days and in different seasons. I can certainly speak for today and for this season. I would go with two - Inclusion and Trust. Right now, with Inclusion as a collective, we're working through non-violent communication training, understanding how to see, hear, value, and support each other. And I mention trust because that whole process takes a tremendous amount of trust.
Q. Truth, transparency, and trust. It is such a big deal at Agile Six. How did you create this environment?
A. Trust is a product of authenticity. I think there's something to say that it's not something you earn, it’s something you can lose, but It's not something you have to earn here; it's a product of humanism. You chose to come here, you chose to bet on this company, on this idea, and you choose every day to get up in the morning and show up, present, vulnerable, and whole. And so, I trust you.
The Essence of Wholeness and Authenticity
Q. Let's continue our discussion on values and dive into the concept of wholeness. Can you explain why it holds such importance for you and Agile Six?
A. First and foremost, wholeness isn't something that you get from work. I believe there's a significant misconception among many people. They think they'll be happy when they're successful, or they define themselves by what they do, their title, or their bank account. Those things should be a reflection of authenticity, and achieving authenticity requires effort.
When we discuss wholeness at Agile Six, our perspective is clear: we aren't promising to make you whole. Instead, we pledge to respect your wholeness, ensuring a space where individuals can merely be present as their complete selves. There's so much we've been conditioned to not expect from our employers.
My foremost advice to anyone, whether at Agile Six or elsewhere, is this: let nothing in your life — not your employer, not a social club, not your homeowner's association — take a piece of you away. When you walk into a place, ensure you walk out whole, not leaving a part of yourself behind. It's about the capacity to be present for others, to respect and support that.
Before anything else, before I head to work, I'm a father and a husband. Those roles are more crucial than anything I do professionally. We prioritize supporting our team members as good parents, partners, citizens, and just good individuals with whom we have the joy and privilege of spending time during the day.
Holding Space for Growth and Innovation
Q. As a leader, how do you define the concept of "holding the space" and its significance in creating a supportive and inclusive environment?
A. "Holding the space" is a term from the Laloux book about teal cultures. It's described as the only significant and inclusive role of the CEO. I believe in that, and I've tried to live by it. It means that what we're discussing, especially concepts like transparency, trust, and wholeness, they don't fit into most traditional cultures. So there's this void, a space where we figure things out. My job has evolved to policing that void, ensuring there's room for new ideas to flourish and keeping fear out of the conversation. I hope that it's a space where you can ask anything you want.
An Unconventional Business Approach
Q. Let's talk about Agile Six's unconventional approach to business. What is it? What inspired it, and why do you think it's working?
A. The key is emergent. So, throw away everything you know. I remember saying this to the founders in the beginning: any business experience, or lack thereof, that you brought with you is no longer interesting. Let's just do this our way. Let's be willing to experiment, to throw things away, to try new things, and to make mistakes.
And this is agile, right? This is why we're called 'agile six.' We invented unique approaches to how we compensate people. As far as I know, our pay band system is innovative. We've invented new ways to return value to the employees by co-investing and putting an actual percentage of profits back into the ESOP on an equal and fair level to everyone.
How we recruit, how we approach and talk to people in interviews – we've reinvented that. How teams coordinate – we resisted imposing PMOs or templates or best practices on our teams because we wanted them to have the autonomy to invent how they deliver every day. We've reinvented how we handle expenses. We just gave people credit cards and trust, and the basic ethos is: I trust you, and you're going to be trustworthy. We've changed how we do performance management; we just threw it away. There are no annual performance reviews. How we handle sales projections, we just threw those away too. We've reinvented how we manage growth: we take as much as we can handle and leave the rest on the table.
We've changed how we evolve our culture by embracing an evolutionary approach to how we set our values. And I'm sure there's much more; the handbook is on demand. I know this can feel sloppy sometimes. "Where's the page that explains how I handle this?" I think the assumption that there's one isn't always a good one. The assumption that you can help form one is a better one. We've changed how issues are handled through the advice channel, how people self-manage. We've given everyone the authority to look at themselves in the mirror as their own manager.
Our marketing? We've reinvented that by focusing on telling stories through people. And the list goes on from there. The most important part is that we'll reinvent all of it at any time if it makes sense to the collective.
Proudest Moments on the Journey
Q. What are you most proud of when it comes to Agile Six's journey and accomplishments?
A. I'll provide two answers. First, early in our journey, we made an incredibly arduous and risky attempt to work on something called vets.gov, which was a precursor to va.gov. I had never wanted anything more in my life than to win that project. So, our small team, I think we were about five people, convinced a partner familiar with the customer to let us subcontract and try to win that work. We overshot; we flew several people to DC, incurring significant risk and cost. The idea behind vets.gov was to consolidate all veteran-facing services in one portal. We collaborated with partners, and I think even hired a consultant or two, stretching our budget. The project was to build a couple of apps. We took the existing code from that site and built an app. In the end, we came in second place, which in retrospect, was surprising given our size and visibility. What I'm proud of is that now that project, our "white whale", is ours. We have around 50 people working on what's now known as va.gov. It was a project that seemed out of reach years ago, but we persisted.
The second thing I'm proud of is that I sit in rooms with people I can't believe I qualify to work with, much less that they chose to work here. I am constantly just grateful for a job here, much less to have the honor to lead.
Learning from Experience
Q. What lessons have you learned along the way?
A. One of the most important lessons I've learned is not to push and really not to pull either, but to participate and embrace what comes up every day. I often think of it in terms of sports metaphors: don't push the ball, just enjoy the game. If you enjoy the game and play with people you love, then eventually, you win.
Reflections, Advice, and Insights
Q. What's the best advice you've been given?
A. The best advice, which initially seemed unconventional to me, came when I had my first people manager job. I had a mentor in Sweden, Johann, with whom I still stay in touch. When I got promoted and was in charge of a team of 20 plus, I showed up with a list of a few people I wanted to let go. But Johann told me, "Robert, we don't do that here. You can't fire them. You have to fire them up." That advice was intimidating at the time, but it truly works. It's crucial to get to know someone as a human being, understand what motivates them, and find out where they best fit. This mindset has become part of our DNA. We can't dismiss people as mere names or problems; we need to understand them as people.
Q. What's the worst advice you've received?
A. The worst advice I received was everything I was told before I left the U.S. I was advised that there's no second place, and that second place is just the first loser. The sentiment was, "If you're going to do something, be the best." This advice instilled in me a mindset to constantly compete, even with immovable objects, rather than seek balance and happiness.
Q. Now, what's the best advice you'd like to give?
A. I have two pieces of advice. First, to entrepreneurs, founders, and leaders: Bet on everything. Just believe in people. When you trust them, they prove to be trustworthy; if you don't, they won't. Go all in. The second piece of advice, particularly for those of us making employment decisions, is to expect nothing less and settle for nothing less. The world won't change until we do.
Q. Let's dream big. What is the most ambitious vision you can see?
A. I would love to see a future where Agile Six continues to grow beyond any of us that are working here today, where our ESOP is complete. I'd love to see that amplified bigger. Maybe a massive corporation that's 100% employee-owned. Hopefully, it's still with the same values. Maybe it's a bigger version of us, a lot of other companies that look like us, putting people first.
Q. Looking ahead, what do you want your legacy to be as the founder and CEO of Agile Six?
A. So, you probably expect me to push back on the word "legacy," and I think I will. But with a grateful spirit, if I have a legacy, I don't think it's about me, but the people I was able to work with. Just the people that said yes. The people that they attracted and the spirit of authenticity and kindness. So, if I'm thinking about legacy, I'd like to be remembered as somebody who was authentic, human, and kind, and demanded just that from other people, and was brave enough to put his last dollar and his last hour behind that.
Disclaimer: This blog post is a summary of the interview with Robert Rasmussen. To access the full audio interview, please visit the top of this page.
Sixer Spotlight is an ongoing series to share the stories of our team. If Robert’s story piqued your interest in a career with Agile Six, explore our open roles.