Founder Spotlight with Robert Rasmussen
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Our Sixer Founder Spotlight kicks off with an inside look into the heart of Agile Six's story – its roots, vision, and narrative – with the CEO and Founder, Robert Rasmussen. This interview is the first of a two-part series exploring Robert's personal journey and the authentic path he navigated to build a better workplace and establish a purpose-driven company.
The essence of our journey revolves around authentic unfolding, and that's my 'why.'
Q. Who is Robert Rasmussen?
A. I am first and foremost a father to two grown children – a daughter and a son of whom I'm very proud. I'm also a husband to a Norwegian immigrant. My life story encompasses an underprivileged upbringing in the United States, and over the years, I've had the opportunity to live and travel extensively abroad. My roles have been many; I am a veteran, founder, nature lover, and volunteer. I'm an avid reader of non-fiction, and an aspiring writer. I am now somebody who has embraced the people around me, evolving into a humanist. Every day, I wake up with gratitude, appreciating the universe as it unfolds before me.
Navigating Identity and Work Culture: Robert Rasmussen's Experience in Norway
Q. What are some personal experiences and pivotal moments that have shaped your journey, inspired you, and contributed to your growth as a leader?
A. Living in Norway for 10 years, just before [September 11, 2001] until 2011, was a transformative experience. It introduced me to a different culture, especially compared to my conservative upbringing in the US. My time in Norway taught me about the importance of a collective society, as opposed to a purely individualistic one. One of my first experiences was when I started working at Ericsson, a large telecommunication firm. On my very first day, the company's focus on employee well-being was evident – they arranged a health check-up for me. The doctor not only discussed my health, but also addressed the importance of not overworking oneself in the Norwegian work culture.
This approach was new to me. The emphasis on work-life balance and well-being was initially hard to understand, and honestly, I was skeptical. I found it challenging to adjust to a work environment that strictly adhered to a 7.5-hour workday, where breaks were taken seriously, and employees were encouraged to take time off if they weren't feeling well.
However, as time passed, I came to appreciate and understand the value of such a work culture. In fact, one of my colleagues would often compare the GDPs of the US and Norway, emphasizing that productivity can still be high even with reduced work hours, especially in creative and technical fields.
This was a culture that was serious about wholeness before productivity.
Q. How did you end up in Norway?
A. My journey to Norway began with love. I met my Norwegian wife in a Bible college in California. After a series of events, including my enlistment in the military, we eventually decided to move to Norway. A family friend worked at Ericsson, and that's how I landed my job there.
Q. What challenges did you face while in Norway?
A. Adapting to Norwegian culture was an identity crisis for me. In the US, I was raised with the notion that our self-worth is tied to our achievements and our ability to be the best. But in Norway, life's value was seen beyond just work. Even though I spent several years at Ericsson, I struggled to fully internalize their egalitarian ethos.
Later, driven partly by ego and a sense of ambition, I joined an American company as a program director in Northern Europe. This role involved traveling constantly across five cities and pushing for aggressive delivery timelines. It was a stark contrast to my experience at Ericsson. After eight months in this grueling job, I had a health scare that put me in the hospital. It was a wake-up call and made me realize that I had lost touch with myself, struggling to balance between my upbringing and the values I had come to appreciate in Norway. This journey of self-discovery was challenging but crucial.
Embracing Authenticity and Purpose
Q. The work culture that exists today that people want to move away from, is that what you described?
A. Here I am, eight months into a job, and I find out that I can't perform the job. I tried, but what I found was that I didn't have the energy any longer to be inauthentic. I like to say it was a moral decision, but it really was probably a physical or mental limitation. As soon as I violated that, or if I violate that still today, the panic attacks come straight back. So I'd like to claim some moral high ground for deciding to embrace authenticity, but I really have no choice. That meant I couldn't continue in that job, which forced a discussion with my wife about the future.
Q. How did these experiences guide your decision-making into creating Agile Six?
A. Quite honestly, part of the truest version of myself was attracted very much to San Diego and California. I am a Californian; I'll always be one. I love it here. I couldn't come back to the culture that was here. So we moved back to the U.S. But sort of on the way, I found a book by a guy named Tony Hsieh, called Delivering Happiness. Tony's book is all about embracing human potential and creativity and happiness. Tony's journey was one of trying to find community. He was very successful early in his career financially, but he ended up walking away from a lot of money in order to be more authentic and embrace community. So I came back to the U.S. and I looked for jobs and I landed in a place where we did incredibly purposeful work, supporting military family programs. I chose Defense Web because they had Tony's book on the shelf and because I met managers who believed in it. That's how I landed back in the U.S. Honestly, just by being myself at interviews and asking and looking for the right things.
The Birth of Agile Six
Q. You and I talked a long time ago, about creating a new business model, a culture that didn't exist. Can you talk about the building of Agile Six and how that all came about?
A. The first part of that story starts at Defense Web. While the culture at Defense Web was amazing, it still wasn't right. It wasn't everything I needed. Towards the end of my time there, they were transitioning out of the purposeful work I loved. At the same time, I noticed the way work was being done wasn't completely aligned with how I thought it should be. During this interim, I believed we could establish a better culture. It would require someone willing to bet everything on this vision. I recognized that my leadership wasn't ready to risk it all for what I wanted.
Simultaneously, I was observing the evolution of what we call the civic tech space. This movement aims to create a more human-centered digital experience for Americans. This was around the time of Obamacare and the significant failure of the healthcare.gov website. Out of this arose the Digital Service Playbook, a website dedicated to how this purposeful work should be executed. Naturally, I was drawn to this.
One day, on my birthday, I had a conversation with Ernie, my best friend and cousin. He'd spent some time at Amazon and was also seeking more purposeful work. We decided to take the plunge. I introduced him to the world of civic tech. Given his background in game development, I believed he would have a keen understanding of user engagement with technology. Subsequent calls were made to Brian Derfer, who has been our COO, CTO, and CIO, and then Edward Teeple, a comrade from my Navy days.
To be candid, from the outset, all of this was designed around my vision and needs. These were the people I wanted to associate with; this was the environment I aimed to nurture. Given my struggles with inauthenticity, this culture was not just a desire, but a necessity.
I was in search of a place that resonated with my values and, when I couldn't find it, we built it.
Navigating Challenges and Forming Vital Partnerships
Q. What are some of the challenges you encountered and what lessons have you learned from them?
A: First and foremost, when we launched the business, my wife was battling cancer. So it was not the time to jump into such a venture. However, as can sometimes happen in those seasons, there was a tremendous clarity and presence, and it felt like life was fragile. We both realized that life was too short to waste. This was an authentic need for us. So, that was an obvious backdrop to the first year. Thankfully, it gave me the flexibility to be at appointments and support her.
That was the first challenge. I think the next one is relationships. You start a business, risk all your finances, mortgage your house. I still have a stack of credit cards that I never used, but I kept them just in case. You have financial challenges that are obvious. Ernie and I didn't take a paycheck for two years. You're betting everything, and then you call all your best friends and bring them in too. The stakes get higher. So now you're betting everything with people that you cherish, including your spouse and your best friends as partners. Those relationships can be strained.
Moreover, the industry is insular. Breaking in is near impossible, regardless of how much experience you have. It's based on past performance. Then, within this industry, we had a specific desire to work in a particular movement. It was new and fresh, but the original roles in the inception of the industry went to people more connected than us. In the first 18 months, we bid on 19 proposals and won nothing. I can recall a few times having a partner's spouse call me out, asking what's going on and where we are headed.
Q. When did things change and what did you do to make them change?
A: I think there are a few things that happened here. The first answer is you have to be all in. I remember telling the partners at hard moments that they were free to leave, but I was going down with the ship. I didn't have a plan B. I'd already exhausted my pensions. I was ready to lose my house. I just knew this would eventually work because the work was purposeful. The second answer is that you have to get out. At first, I felt lost. But eventually, I started mapping targets. I took inventory of who I knew and tried to find connections to the government. I'd then map the players in agencies. I remember wearing a suit and tie to meet a junior partner at Booz Allen. We'd ask if there was anything they weren't bidding on that we could help with.
At the same time, we knew where we wanted to be. I spent time following people around from the US Digital Service (USDS). They were new, so a lot of the competitors didn't know who they were. I showed up at meetings, prepared questions, and tried to make contacts. This led me to meet Dan Levenson. Dan was speaking at one such meeting, and I had a well-prepared, somewhat edgy question. After the seminar, I tried to hand him my business card. For context, Dan was a contracting officer at the Center for Medicaid Medicare, specializing in digital service. He was sort of a partner of the USDS. The topic of that discussion was the USDS, and they had a recruiting table in the hallway. I approached it, trying to explain how I knew who they were and what they needed. This led to my first contact and a small contract doing Agile Coaching at CMS. At that point, Ernie and I relocated to Baltimore for a year and you know, scrubbed in. I think that’s the point with Government Contracting, you’ve got to find a place to scrub in, and we did, and we made and kept two great promises. It all started from there.
After a couple of years working with Dan, we managed to convince him to join us and help us move things forward.
Q: When Dan came on board, did things change?
A. A lot of things changed when Dan came in. He had the vision, a deep understanding of incentives in contracting, and relationships with some of the people I was chasing. Most importantly, he had confidence that we could be a major player in the civic tech space. He never doubted it.
The relationship with Dan was at the right time. We spoke the same language, and we were both trying to achieve a better, more human government. The thing about our relationship is that while we believe in the same things, our deepest passions are different. Dan's is for better government, and mine is for better workplaces. Together, we can look in different directions and get them both done.
Today, we are a major player in the civic tech space, and Dan Levenson is President of Agile Six.
I think it's really important when you can unfold authentically into the world and, in return, find your place in history. And I think that's where we were.
What's in a Name: The Meaning Behind Agile Six.
Q. How did you come up with the name Agile Six?
A. It was actually quite fast. Within a few hours, we had the name, and it's sometimes surreal to see it, eight years later, on t-shirts and hats. But it's very personal to me. When we launched the company, I made a list of words that meant something to me.
The combination of these two particular words, "Agile" and "Six," is significant. "Agile" is a nod to and recognition of the Agile Manifesto and the movement it represents. Having lived through that time, the spirit of the manifesto aligns with everything we've discussed. It's about finding a better way of working—one that discards politics and unnecessary baggage from the agenda.
Being responsive to real people and real needs, and having the ability to listen and respond, embodies the essence of "Agile." As for the word "Six," it signifies the culture we wanted to cultivate—being responsive to others by having each other's back.
Personally, "Six" harks back to my experience in the military. It was the first place where I truly felt safe, where irrespective of rank, when things got tough or dangerous, I knew someone was looking out for me. In the military, there's a culture where you don't need to watch your own back because someone else has you covered. You put your life in each other's hands.
So, Agile Six encapsulates the idea of placing your wellness, your wholeness, and your career in someone else's hands. This enables you to face forward, focusing on the challenges ahead. By doing so, you can listen attentively and respond effectively to those challenges.
Q: What drives the mission and purpose of Agile Six?
In the beginning, when we started the company, we certainly had a mission. We had a mission statement, and I'll confess that we had things like annual goals and key performance indicators. We had maps to guide us where we planned and intended to go. However, I previously shared that it didn't work out as we hoped. We faced setbacks—19 times in a row over 18 months. Through these experiences, we learned to embrace a more emergent approach to our mission and a more evolutionary perspective.
We encountered transformative concepts, such as Frederick LaLoux's book 'Reinventing Organizations and Stanley McChrystal's 'Team of Teams'. Both sources emphasized the efficacy of being present, flexible, responsive, and aware—traits that align with an agile mindset. As a result, we shifted towards valuing more presence, reduced emphasis on rigid planning, and a stronger focus on emergence and evolution rather than rigid prediction.
What drives our mission today is what resonates in the heart of our collective consciousness.
During the early days of our business, we secluded ourselves in a cabin in Arrowhead, California, attempting to predict and predestine our path. While some of our predictions came true, most resulted in wasted energy. Through our encounters with ideas from LaLoux and McChrystal, they were both saying the same thing, that there’s more – it redirected us towards fostering a healthy collective and creating a space for creative minds to flourish. Our interactions with customers became more centered on listening than talking. The unfolding of the universe paralleled our authentic unfolding, reflected in our customers' experiences.
This perspective doesn't align with the conventional CEO response. Rather than fixating on rigid plans, we focus on the senses, seasons, and opportunities that present themselves. Our growth has been constant. If we weren't growing, I think you could probably label me as incompetent. But we've always grown. And now what happens is that so much emerges that our focus is not on where we're going to go, but where we won't go. And so instead of reaching for the gas pedal, we're always riding the brakes. It's an interesting dynamic when you know yourself and you unfold so authentically, especially in this space that I described before as being so insular and desolate. But abundance emerges, and you have to choose where you don't go. And I think that's been the most important decision we've made.
You just have to unfold authentically, and I think that’s the why for me.
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