By Claire Oliver
Cynt Marshall is the name to know in the telecom industry, having spent 36 years at AT&T, climbing her way up from operator to Chief Diversity Officer. She is such a force that Mark Cuban called her up directly to recruit her as the next CEO of the Dallas Mavericks.
When Marshall took the helm of the Mavericks organization in 2018, she became the first and only Black woman to hold the position in the NBA — to her surprise. Under her leadership, the Mavs have undergone a cultural transformation that's set the tone for DEI efforts across the entire league.
Marshall sat down with Chief Member Charlene Polite Corley, VP of Diverse Insights & Partnerships at Nielsen, for a conversation on turning vision into action and how listening to, learning from, and loving the people has made her one of the most powerful women in corporate America.
On Finding Talent Everywhere
"My team hears me say this all the time: Zip code doesn't matter. I don't care where I go to find you. My zip code was 94804, and some would have thought that was one of the worst zip codes in the San Francisco Bay Area. Look what came out of it, and good things are still coming out of it. You can find talent everywhere. People's experiences, their education, what they've gone through, their resilience — they build up a tenacity, authenticity — all of that is stuff we want to walk through our doors. That foundation is what we want in our workplaces. You can find talent everywhere, and we need all of that creativity, all those different perspectives."
On Knowing When to Protect Your Authenticity
"I've gotten great coaching on how to lead at the executive level. That's very different than telling me to fundamentally change who I am. I ended up getting promoted to the highest level to be an officer [at AT&T]. I was humbled. There were only two other Black women in officer positions. They were my role models, so I was going to be like them and I was excited about it. But then my boss went on to tell me that she wanted me to change my hairstyle… She told me exactly what she wanted me to look like. She wanted me to stop talking so loud. She said all these people coming in and out of my office needed to stop. I was too much of a people person. She wanted me to stop saying the word 'blessed' and just say 'lucky.' I couldn't be Cynt, I had to be Cynthia. The list was just getting a little bit too long.
"I told them no, and then I got a call in less than five minutes from (my boss's) boss and the chairman of the company. He said, 'Cynt, I just heard what happened, let's do this all over again.'... The rest is history."
On Changing Industries as a Senior Executive
"Think about what you actually bring, whatever it is. Don't think about jobs. Don't think about industry. What has your education and your experience in and out of the home taught you? What do you bring that is powerful?
"When I think about the job that I'm in now, Mark Cuban needed a leader. He needed somebody with proven results. He needed somebody who wasn't afraid to take on the hard people issues. He needed somebody who could be a quick learner and actually learn the business of basketball. When I think about everything he needed in that job and everything that's required of me every day, aside from not knowing the business of basketball, I brought it with me based on my other experiences. Fortunately, I've been blessed enough to have a team of people around me, and a boss, and colleagues across the industry who have gone overboard to make sure that I learned the business of basketball."
On Setting the NBA Standard
"For me, it was a simple recipe; in some cases not simple to do, but the recipe is pretty simple. I said our vision would be that the Dallas Mavericks would set the global standard in the NBA for diversity and inclusion. That's the vision I laid out for the company, and it's because I believe in the diversity dividend. I believe, if we do this right, if we have a diverse group of people, if we truly have a culture of inclusion, if equity is truly as important as equality, we will truly have the best results in terms of fan engagement, customer service, employee engagement — you name it.
"We laid out a set of values that spell 'CRAFTS:' character, respect, authenticity, fairness, teamwork, and safety, so our hashtag is #respectatwork #perfectourcrafts. Then, I laid out a 100-day plan that had about 200 items in it. We executed on it, and we did it as a team."
On Leading by Listening
"I had a one-on-one with every single employee in the (Mavericks) organization. I'd give them two things. I'd say, 'Tell me your whole life story.' Most of the time they would say, 'Oh, this is my fifth season at the Mavs, 'This is my 10th season at the Mavs.' And I'd say, 'Were you born here? I want your whole life. I want to know who you are, where you came from. I want to know who is here, because that's how we serve you. We need to know you.' So they were surprised by that, and people would tell me all kinds of stuff. Then at the end I said, 'What's your vision five years from now? Where do you see yourself personally and professionally five years from now?' And that would give me a sense for where these people wanted to go. Most of these people chose to have a career in sports. We owed it to these people to give them a great place to work."