Cynthia Marshall has broken down barriers and made waves her entire life while battling through various challenges. Marshall is the first Black woman to lead an NBA team, currently serving as the CEO of the Dallas Mavericks. During her time with the Dallas Mavericks, Marshall has transformed a previously toxic and misogynistic culture into an inclusive environment where everyone can speak up and have a voice.
Marshall had a traumatic childhood, she dealt with an abusive father and had little to no money growing up. When Marshall was 15, her father slapped her and broke her nose as she tried to protect her mother from his violent rage. That one incident gave her mother the courage to leave with her 3 children; never to return.
But Marshall says she learned to ‘weed out the distractions’ at an early age and stay focused on what she wanted to accomplish. She found comfort in books and sports and gave due credits to her mother, Carolyn Gardener, for always making education the top priority in their house. “My mother put a math book in one hand and the Bible in the other,” Marshall said in an interview.
Marshall was thoroughly dedicated to academic pursuits in school which paid off when she bagged a full scholarship to the University of California, Berkeley, to study Business Administration and Human Resources Management. The University was the first of her many milestones and instances of breaking barriers. She became the University’s first African-American cheerleader and enjoyed football.
Marshall said, “Praying has always helped her cope when people said negative things about her on the football field. I prayed a lot because I had to keep my spirits calm. It’s the kind of stuff that can get you really upset, when you hear some of that stupid stuff,” she said.
After graduation, she had 13 job offers lined up. She took the one that offered a brilliant fast-track management program, and that paid the most as well: $16,800. She worked her way up the corporate ladder and eventually secured the position of President of AT&T in North Carolina that later turned to Chief Diversity Officer and Senior Vice President of Human Resources for the National Corporation. She worked with AT&T for 36 years.
When she started, she managed long-distance operators in San Francisco’s Mission neighbourhood, “back in the day when you had to dial 0,” and most of the operators were “old enough to be my mom,” Marshall said.
“You have to try to understand people and then ‘meet them’ where they are,” said Marshall. When she started working, Marshall noticed that the operators were not allowed to go to the washroom until the light above their station went off. She proposed a new system by which the operators could trade-off and go to the bathroom when needed instead of being dictated by a light switch. When the supervisor approved the system, it was a big success, and the division showed tremendous results. The moral? “Treat people like humans,” she said.
In 2010, she got a disturbing call from her doctor: “I have news. It’s bad, and it’s significant.” Marshall was detected with stage 3 colon cancer, one lymph node away from being stage 4. However, she had complete faith that she would beat it. She wrote an email to her boss with a message that she asked to be shared with all of her colleagues: “I was uniquely qualified to get through this. And by the end of the summer, I will not have cancer.” By the end of that summer, Marshall beat the dreaded disease and was declared cancer-free.
She previously intended to retire after her kids graduated and the cancer battle was won; however, opportunities kept coming to help other people achieve success, and Marshall was not one to say no to helping others. When she finally did decide to retire, Dow Chemical Company invited her to help pioneer an inclusion program, and she was thrilled to be part of such a brilliant initiative. Before the project had even ended, Mark Cuban called from the Mavericks a start to a whole new journey. “I felt like I was being called into service,” says Marshall, looking back. “For the sisterhood.”
Inclusion and diversity are two different things, Marshall explained. “Diversity is about numbers and representation. Inclusion is how to create a culture that’s welcoming.” Both are still a work in progress. She took the position at the Dallas Mavericks to help tackle both.
In the beginning, she didn’t know she was going to take the Mavericks job. She didn’t even know who Mark Cuban was when he called to talk to her. It was her husband who told her, “You really need to take this call.”
Even after she researched the company, she was determined to say no and walk away. “What woman would want to come here?” she remembers thinking. But when she visited, she recalled, “I saw people hurting and in pain.” Cuban wanted to find a solution.
However, changing a toxic culture does not happen overnight. But Marshall was no ordinary woman, she made a plan to achieve it in 100 days. Marshall outlined six core values that the Mavericks employees should live by. These are Character, Respect, Authenticity, Fairness, Teamwork, and Safety, or CRAFTS for short. Marshall said these values guided every decision the leadership team made. This visible commitment helped ensure that the values were felt in the halls, rather than just being written on the walls.
To keep tabs on the cultural transformation, Marshall also established an inclusion council. This council is responsible for evaluating the effectiveness of the Mavericks’ employee resource groups and determining whether more or less groups were needed.
She has also tackled operational effectiveness, one key aspect of this was addressing pay equality. When Marshall first arrived at the Mavericks, women were not earning the same amount as men for equal work. To help her team grasp the importance of closing these gaps, she showed them a video created by the Australia and New Zealand Banking Group (ANZ) in which children are asked to do chores only for the boys to get paid more. The kids’ shocked reactions serve as a reminder that just because something’s common, that doesn’t mean it’s right. The wage gap was instantly rectified.
Since taking the role, Marshall has focused on hiring a diverse executive team. There were no women or people of colour on the Mavericks’ leadership team when Marshall started. Today, according to a Mavericks spokesperson, 50% are women, and 47% are people of colour.
Looking back, Marshall said she managed to achieve her 100-day plan because she led with intention, insight, inclusion, and inspiration. “I call it going all in,” she said.
Marshall hopes her work with the Mavericks will set the standard for inclusion and diversity in all sports organizations. “You don’t get results if you don’t take care of people. And so, that’s why I come to work every day. Literally, that’s what gets me up in the morning,” she told CNN in an interview.
These days, Marshall says she tries to think of ‘the person first and the employee second’ when making important decisions. As for the naysayers, who still exist, she says, “I usually take the haters head-on.”