Darren Beck is Director of Environmental Initiatives at Sprint. Sprint is widely recognized as a sustainability leader in the mobile phone industry, spearheading energy-efficiency programs, removing legacy towers, and ensuring record amounts of electronic waste (particularly mobile phones) are reused, recycled or disposed of properly. We spoke with Darren about how his role at Sprint has evolved, his experience as an intrapreneur, and his thirst for work that is professionally and personally fulfilling.
SB: Darren, we are big fans of your job title. Could you share the reasoning behind it? What range of responsibilities does it cover? How did it evolve?
Darren: Thanks. I serve as the Director of Environmental Initiatives & CR Innovation for the company. Over the last few years, I’ve been responsible for driving initiatives at Sprint that have helped reduce environmental impact while enhancing the company’s reputation and bottom line. To achieve this, I function much like an internal consultant to the business. I regularly advise a range of operational working teams at Sprint focused on areas like device reuse and recycling, waste reduction, water conservation, responsible procurement, and “Winning with CR” in business sales. The objective has been helping these amazing teams move beyond business as usual. Together, we seek innovative ways to acquire resources more responsibly, manage them more efficiently, drive cost savings where possible, track our performance, share our efforts publicly and inspire others (e.g., suppliers, customers, peers, etc) to do the same.
Pursuing fresh avenues for evolving our operations often requires us to look outside the business. Whether it’s engaging NGOs and other stakeholders for new ideas or evaluating startups who offer promising new technology, my role frequently involves scouting out the next big idea. That focus has provided a natural segue into the latest aspect of my job – developing and filling an innovation pipeline for Corporate Responsibility. I’m helping the team to identify business opportunities that generate new streams of revenue for Sprint while helping to create a better world. Think of it as innovation with purpose — profitable ventures and products that truly exemplify the meaning of “shared value.”
SB: At SB'14 San Diego, you will discuss, among other things, the skills, tactics and tools you and your colleagues at Sprint have found useful in fostering effective change agents within the company. Could you give us a quick teaser summary of all the major ways in which the Sustainability Team at Sprint has influenced the rest of the organization to date?
SB: In your own journey toward becoming a successful intrapreneur, what partners or mentors had the biggest influence?
Darren: Rather than a person, my biggest influence is the thought of “what could be?” Certainly, I’m inspired by visionary innovators ranging from Leonardo DaVinci, Thomas Jefferson and Nicola Tesla to Bill McDonough, Janine Benyus and Richard Branson. I’m also a TED junkie, a fan of new disruptive ventures, and a hacker a heart. The common thread running through all of this is the desire to create something of value that helps to improve the human condition. When I consider successful models of intrapreneurship that resonate with me, they embody that same trait. They succeed because they find new ways to generate profitability for the company while delivering something high in value back to society.
SB: If you were to single out one piece of advice you received that deeply influenced your journey, what would it be?
Darren: The advice I received came in the form of a question, as well. A wonderful mentor of mine at Sprint asked me, “Can you do it here?” He posed it at a critical juncture in my professional life. About eight years ago, I presented him with a personal manifesto - a vision of my ideal job. In essence, it would be entrepreneurial yet have a ministerial quality to it – being in service to the world and to those in need. I’d spent most of my career up until that time on two parallel tracks: Professionally, I had helped grow companies by offering my talents in strategy, marketing and business development. Personally, I had invested much of my time in advancing education, the environment and social equality to help create a better world. I was viewing my options in a binary way. Either I could satisfy my professional passion at Sprint, or I could leave the company to satisfy my personal passion elsewhere. My mentor encouraged me to consider how I could merge both passions. That conversation and an introduction he made led me to where I am now, on Sprint’s Corporate Responsibility team. I now have the best of both worlds - I’m helping to drive intrapreneurship and innovation at Sprint while building one of the country's premiere corporate sustainability programs.
SB: What are some tipping points, or inflection points, that you see pointing to company-wide or mainstream acceptance of sustainability needs and opportunities? How does a sustainability team know when the cultural norms are about to jump a level at any given company?
Darren: The biggest tipping point for Sprint came with our CEO Dan Hesse. He’s intrinsically motivated to do the right thing and passionate about sustainability. From the time Dan joined Sprint at the end of 2007, he has focused squarely on three objectives for the company: improving the customer experience, strengthening the brand, and generating cash. He followed that with a cadence of innovative steps that have helped set Sprint apart in the industry.
One of those differentiators was focusing on sustainability. He saw Sprint was already receiving positive recognition for its environmentally friendly headquarters, its successful phone-recycling programs, its work with the EPA around carbon reporting and its focus on developing greener phones. In fact one of his first opportunities to address Sprint employees was as he introduced them to Elizabeth Grossman, author of High Tech Trash. She was presenting an educational webinar to Sprint on the need for more sustainable product design. Dan understood that with additional executive support, Sprint could establish clear leadership and further differentiate itself within the industry. Working with the Corporate Responsibility team, he set the wheels in motion to develop the governance structure, long-term objectives and accountability that helped Sprint achieve that vision. Through his leadership, our innovation has also flourished. In fact, Sprint is granted an average of over two US patents every business day. When Dan received the CEO Lifetime Achievement Award from CR magazine last year, he shared the following insight: “Innovation is one of the 10 Sprint Imperatives that are a foundation of our brand. What really excites us is how our great company in this transformational industry can have a very meaningful, positive impact, on our world.” It’s from that culture that the Corporate Responsibility team draws support for its intrepreneurial efforts.
The good news is that I see more and more leaders across corporate America adopting a similar strategy for their organizations. Individual and teams, many of whom will be attending the Sustainable Brands conference in June, are being given license to operate in a new way. They are being encouraged to blend their professional passion for growth and continuous improvement with their personal passion to serve humanity and the world in a way that propels their companies forward. It reminds me of the following observation that I shared in an address to the MBA students in the Mendoza School of Business at Notre Dame a couple of years ago. There’s been a shift inside the walls of big business. I came of age in the ‘80s, when corporate cynicism ran high and the actions of big business were easily seen through the lens of the movie, Wall Street, and Gordon Gekko’s famous line, “Greed is good.” However, today there is an increasing awareness and appetite for the benefits that come from conducting business conscientiously. When we think of honorable professions, we traditionally consider preachers, teachers, firefighters and the police. What I let the students know is that they also are entering into an honorable profession. With their MBAs in hand and the changes taking place in corporate America, there has never been a greater opportunity for them to make a difference in the world.