How She Leads: Amy Hargroves, Sprint

How She Leads: Amy Hargroves, Sprint

How She Leads is a regular GreenBiz feature spotlighting the careers of women who have moved into influential roles in sustainable business.

Amy Hargroves hasn't done it all at Sprint, but it seems that way. In her nearly 30 years at the company, she has worked in product management, sales operations, and the company's foundation. Since 2007, she has headed Sprint's sustainability efforts — strategy, governance, performance measurement, analyst relations, Web communications and project management.

And during that period, Sprint has racked up an admirable list of accolades and awards for its innovations in environmental and social responsibility. Last year, for instance, Sprint was the only telecom services company named to CDP’s S&P 500 Climate Performance Leadership Index. Sprint was also named for the third consecutive year to the Dow Jones Sustainability Index North America index, which tracks the corporate sustainability performance of the top 20 percent of the 600 largest companies by industry in the U.S. and Canada.

All this has been taking place during interesting times for Sprint. Last year, Sprint was acquired by SoftBank Corp., a Japanese telecommunications and Internet corporation. As this story is being published, the company is closing in on a merger with T-Mobile.

I recently checked in with Hargroves to learn more about her role at Sprint, what drives the company's innovation and how all this plays out amid the throes of mergers and acquisitions.

Joel Makower: Amy, what’s your role at Sprint?

Amy Hargroves: I'm in corporate responsibility, except for philanthropy and diversity. I cover the overall strategy of all the other areas of corporate responsibility and the change agents within Sprint. So, how do we get it embedded in Sprint? How do we drive results? It's a pretty open job description, but it includes all of the reporting, the facilitation of initiatives through teams in different departments and integrating it into all the business functions.

Makower: How has the view of corporate responsibility changed at Sprint?

Hargroves: There's so much more conversation about what we stand for, who are we as a company, how we help the world. It isn't just about making profit, but it's also good profit, and seeing social engagement and environmental engagement as a way to survive in the long term.

Makower: What drives that internally within Sprint?

Hargroves: My view is that it's already inside everybody. So it's a way to turn that on. And once you're able to get enough people turned on to that concept within the company, it's hard to turn back, because everybody has a desire to do the right thing and to do good. And once you enable them to do that at work, how can you not want to do more of it?

Makower: Sure, but not every company is turning that switch on inside people. How do you activate that part of your employees?

Hargroves: It's hugely important to have a CEO that's willing to say it's important. Yes, everybody may have that interest, but if you don't think you have permission to do it, you won't. You'll be afraid to do it. So you do have to have some feeling of support that you are able to act on your values, if you will. And we have been very fortunate to have that at Sprint.

Makower: One of the ways that I've seen that manifest in Sprint is your advocacy work with BICEP and lobbying on behalf of the wind production tax credit. What do you see as the opportunity there for Sprint? Why is taking an advocacy role an appropriate role for a CSR professional?

Hargroves: It starts out with the opportunity for shared value creation, and there are three main parts to it.

One of them is being credible, which means actually doing the work, effectively managing the CR practices — walking the talk. The second piece is about leveraging influence, and that's where advocacy sits. And the third part is about innovation and disruption.

You can do advocacy once you have a vision of who you are. What do you stand for as a company, and what are you going to do about it? Hopefully, you're going to stand for something that means something to consumers.

What made that point clear to me was at a BSR conference years ago. It was a gentleman who used to head up labor for Clinton, and he talked about StarKist advocating for dolphin-free tuna. They knew that society was going in a direction to support dolphin-free tuna, so they actually pushed for regulation. And by getting that regulation to require dolphin-free tuna, it leveled the playing field in terms of cost. And they got that huge social win of being seen as the champion of an issue that consumers cared about. That was the first time I had really heard of this kind of positive advocacy.

We hadn't done that much at Sprint. We had a very traditional government affairs department. Their main position was, “Let's look out for regulation that could hinder us. What do we need to fight? What do we need to challenge? What do we need to modify to better support our business environment?”

This type of advocacy is very, very different. It is a different type of interaction with the regulators — about why you care about an issue versus why are you against it. Being for something is a very, very different conversation. That test went well, and that has given us a license to do more.

Makower: Well, what are some other issues you see taking on?

Hargroves: This sphere-of-influence thing is kind of a new idea that I've been really excited about lately: understanding what your leverage points are based on your unique business. When you do that, you can create disproportionate change. That's what I see on the plastics issue with the Newlight case. We are in a industry that has a tremendous amount of plastic, so how can we nurture this innovation and use our sphere of influence to be a disruptor in that space?

Makower: Given that you don't manufacture things, why do you see that as part of your sphere of influence?

Hargroves: Our sphere of influence is that we are a very large buyer. They will do their best to please us, but that's a relatively shallow reason for change and we want to go beyond that. Can we actually help them see that this is positive for their business? If it's positive for their business, they become a stronger supplier. So we feel that it makes a much richer relationship with our suppliers — trying to inspire them more on sustainability, rather than forcing it down their throats.

Makower: The innovation piece has been interesting to watch. You're delving into biomimicry, you've developed CO2 as a material for phone cases. That isn't a traditional CSR role. How did that come to be part of your job?

Hargroves: We're a little bit opportunistic, meaning that opportunities come our way. And I think it is becoming part of the CSR role. When you look at the article that was most influential for us in that, the Porter-Kramer article on creating shared value, being a technology company, the potential is just phenomenal. It would be such a miss if we did not go after innovation and understand the opportunity we have. Over the last four years, I can't tell you how many business development opportunities have come our way because there wasn't a receptive path in other arms of Sprint or in other technology companies.

We have relationships with almost all of the operational organizations at Sprint, because of all the footprinting stuff we do. We are strong business advocates first and activists second. So, we get all these opportunities coming our way.

Makower: Could you give me an example of one of the opportunities?

Hargroves: Better World Wireless is basically a reseller of Sprint. They have their own corporate identity, their own marketing, but they use the Sprint network. They had an idea to follow the TOMS Shoes model for selling wireless phones. So, for every phone that you buy, a phone is given to someone in need. It also gives us another place to use our recycled phones, and we're creating social good.

Makower: All of this has been taking place in the context of a new owner for Sprint, and the possibility of an acquisition by Sprint of T-Mobile. How does that affect your mission and your ability to do the things you want?

Hargroves: We have remained relatively unchanged in this transition. There has not been any interest in thinning us out or having us step back at all.

But the piece that has taken over a bit more is value creation. This is a much bigger philosophical issue about CSR as a whole. To me, the next stage of CSR is about making the case from a shareholder perspective. Why is this good business? Why should companies be doing this?

The opportunity on the revenue-creation side is higher and will be more interesting to shareholders and everybody else that has a voice in a company's survival. It is more important than even the cost-reduction piece. When you look at how many articles are being written right now about shared value, most of them are still very light on the business case side. I see it as a really critical proof point.

So to the extent that we can prove that out and, we improve our likelihood of staying a main function at Sprint, whoever Sprint ends up to be.

Makower: One of the things you’ve worked hard on at Sprint is empowering employees on corporate responsibility issues. A lot of companies have been challenged with that. What’s worked for you?

Hargroves: It’s talking to people and asking, what are you passionate about? What are the things you really care about? Even within our team, we align or assign opportunities based on people's passion. Where can they really make a difference, and where is it going to mean the most to them? Because the more passionate they are on a subject, we are far more likely to succeed.

We do the same thing as we work with the other departments. We have very deliberately gone out to find and nurture champions within the company. We find that champion, and it very often isn’t the leader. If you can turn on an employee, find somebody who is really passionate about this and who wants to take chances and go with it — oh, my gosh, do you accomplish a lot!

Makower: And it sounds like there's no bigger champion than you.

Hargroves: It's certainly been a very good fit for me. I love innovation and the entrepreneurial piece. My husband is an entrepreneur, and so that helped give me some insight into that space. And I think it's just one of the most exciting spaces to be. It's really where value creation happens, with entrepreneurs.

Photo of Amy Hargroves courtesy of Sprint.