Cancer, Discrimination and Toxic Culture: How the Dallas Mavericks CEO Beat Them All

by | Sep 11, 2022 | Entrepreneurial Journey

Cynthia “Cynt” Marshall was hired by Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban to take over as its CEO in 2018, becoming the first Black woman to ever head up an NBA team.

In her new book You’ve Been Chosen she details the unlikely things for which she has been chosen, from a difficult and abusive childhood to a full scholarship at University of California, Berkeley, to an executive suite at AT&T. Along the way, she endured three miscarriages, one of which nearly killed her, and the loss of a newborn daughter. The book also details the adoption of her four children and her successful battle with stage 3 colon cancer.

Marshall spoke to TIME about how her religious beliefs have shaped her perspective on obstacles she has faced in life and at work, her efforts to change the culture at the Mavericks and why she believes everyone is chosen.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

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You’re the CEO of the Dallas Mavericks, which is the kind of job that some people dream of having. But I think it’s fair to say that this was not necessarily your childhood dream. Is that true?

That is true. I didn’t really know this kind of job existed.

What was that learning curve like?

I did have to do some heavy lifting because we were in the process of having to transform the organization and deal with some longstanding issues. I walked in during a time that an investigation [into toxic workplace culture] was underway. And the season was underway. I had to purge an old culture while instilling a new culture, and then just the normal things that you deal with from a change management resistance standpoint. And then you’ve got to please your fans and run a business all at the same time. It was a lot of moving pieces. I didn’t know the business of basketball; I know how to lead people. I know how to put together business plans. I had to rely on a lot of people—my colleagues, people in the league, people in our own workplace, my boss—to teach me the business of basketball. I am very competitive and so I like to make sure that, whatever we’re measuring, we are setting the standard in the NBA.

Your book is called You’ve Been Chosen. I certainly get how it must feel like that to you when you’re the first female president of an NBA team. You were the first Black woman head of the North Carolina Chamber of Commerce. You were a lot of firsts. But what about the rest of us: can you feel chosen to be the UPS guy or work at the perfume counter at Macy’s?

Yes. I said it a lot during my cancer battle that I was uniquely equipped and chosen to have cancer. My book really is about every point in my life when I faced adversity and how God and great people always showed up and that I realized that there was something deep down and something that had already happened in my life that equipped me for the battle that was in front of me. And yes, I have been chosen to be the first and do many things, but I think we’re all chosen. We’re all chosen for our unique professions, our unique roles that we have in our families, our unique challenges, and opportunities.

I’ll give you an example. If you are the security guard at the AT&T building—I have experienced this— and people are walking into that building, going through different things and you’re the first one that they see, your greeting actually changes a person’s day. I think we’re all chosen uniquely for the positions and the jobs that we’re in and we have to seize those opportunities and take advantage of them and realize that every single role is a big role. I feel like I’m chosen to be the fourth child out of six in my family and I’ve always felt that way, even when we had nothing.

Do you worry that attitude might somehow put a damper on people’s ambition or their willingness to get out of their situation?

No, it doesn’t put a damper on ambition at all. I think it can help with ambition because you know that there’s something else that you’re chosen to do. I wasn’t chosen just for one particular thing. I wasn’t chosen just for two particular things. I was chosen for a lot of things. I think we all are.

You write about the importance of your “focused, optimistic people driven energy” to your career success, but there must have been some tough moments. How do you handle those?

There is a lot of difficult stuff. I don’t cry a lot about work. What I do get emotional about is if I had to terminate someone. I’ve always said I’ve never fired anybody, people fire themselves with their actions, but as a leader, I have to be the one to walk them to the door. Whatever the circumstances, that’s difficult for me. In the job that I’m in now, when I had to let some leaders go, I had to let them go for all the right reasons. I had to let them go to change our culture in the workplace. When I was at AT&T, we had this cycle where we would have to let people go right before Christmas. I’m very optimistic but if you’re telling somebody they’re losing their job, all the optimism in the world is not going to help them. You try to make it soft, you try to have empathy and compassion, and you still have to take the action that you have to take.

Early in the book, you’re dealing with an audit and you write “as a Black woman in corporate America I learned long ago that I would sometimes be treated as if I were untrustworthy, or dishonest.” Did you find that that increased or decreased as you got older and more senior?

That’s a great question. As I got bigger jobs and more responsibility, I think it probably increased. What I found is the more I was responsible for, the more attention and scrutiny I got, and the more I experienced that. The more people you have to deal with, the more they’re looking at you and every move you make. I mean, I’m used to it. Not to say it’s right, but I’m used to it.

Is it the female thing, that the more powerful a woman is the less people trust her, or is it the African American thing or is it just the same with anyone in power? Do you know which part of it is causing the distrust?

It’s a sort of combination. I’m a Black woman executive. It’s all three. I know people of color deal with it. I know women deal with it. I just think it comes with an extra level of scrutiny, and that there are some people who unfortunately have biases and beliefs about certain people. And I’ve experienced that where people just felt like ‘you don’t know business’ or ‘it’s not in your culture to know business and so you don’t know what you’re doing and I can’t really trust you.’ I’ve dealt with that.

At one point in your career, somebody advised you to take out your braids and to wear more sensible shoes. And you did it. If you were in the same position today, would you do it?

Let me say it this way: I took that advice, because I feel that the woman was genuinely giving me advice that she thought was good for me. She really believed that I worked in a place where in order to be successful, I needed to look a certain way. I think it came from a good heart. Knowing what I know now, would I do it? No. I did this big Instagram post and got my hair [braided] July 6 of last year because it was my 40th anniversary of starting my professional life. And I wanted to send a message to employers but also to women who look like me, that it is OK to wear your hair however you want. I can still deliver what I need to deliver in braids in red shoes or the fuchsia boots [I’m wearing now.] But no, I wouldn’t do that again. I would leave.

And then when you were offered a really big role at AT&T it was suggested that if you took it, you should wear more white and you should not use language like “blessed.” Instead, you declined the promotion. These days this would be called, at minimum, microaggression—or maybe just flat-out racism. Did you ever, at the time, think of going to HR?

No. I just thought: I have a decision to make. Do I want to do this in order to accept this promotion? It was a quick decision. I’m willing to do certain things, but when you start saying I can’t use words like blessed and I can’t talk too loud and I need to change my name because nobody knows what Cynt is, at some point, you are fundamentally asking me to change who I am. And you’re telling me you don’t accept who I am. I was more concerned at that point about how to turn down this promotion and not lose my job. I was VP already, helping my family, helping a lot of people. Later I got the call back and it turned out to be fine [to not make those changes.] And much later I realized just how ridiculous and out of line it was. But that’s not where I went at the moment.

You were told you had stage 3 colon cancer on your 51st birthday. Lots of people don’t survive that. And yet you never doubted that you would beat it. That was purely from faith?

It was pure faith from a phone call with my mother and her conviction when she said, “This is for His glory.” There was stuff I had to do. I needed to get to the doctor, I needed to have chemo, there was a part that I needed to play. But I knew I was gonna beat it.

Again, a lot of people get sick and get healing prayer and take it to their faith communities, and they don’t get better. Do you worry at all that this could be read as if they did not have sufficient faith and therefore, they were not healed?

Here’s what somebody said to me one day and it so resonated. I was talking about [a friend with pancreatic cancer] and I said she lost her battle. And this person said, ‘Why would you say she lost her battle? She’s in a better place. Her battle ended up where it was meant to end up. You might see it as a loss. Her family might not see it as a loss.’ So I had to check my words because I never thought about it like that.

Your childhood was pretty tough. Your father beat your mother, he broke your nose, he pointed a gun at your head through a car window and shot a man in front of you. When your mother finally left him, he stole all the furniture. Did you ever confront him about all that?

I actually thought I had a good childhood. I think my mother had a lot to do with that; she shielded us from a lot of stuff. I got a chance to talk to my father when he called me the night I graduated from college and said he had a car for me. We could never disrespect my father; that’s how we were taught. So I just told him that I was fine and I didn’t need anything from him. He called me a couple of years later. I believe he knew he was very sick at that point and apologized just for a lot of things. And I accepted that apology and then that was the last time I talked to him.

He said at one point that you and your sisters would end up on the street. And you write with some flourish that you did make your money on the street, but it was Wall Street. How much of your life was driven by proving your father wrong?

I did prove him wrong. But I think it was more driven by just a sense of purpose and knowing that the Lord had good things out there for us that my mom always taught us to go and get. There was a time when three things—him threatening me the night of my graduation, him coming through [my bedroom] window with the shotgun, and him coming up to us in the grocery store parking lot with the gun—would play in my mind all the time. I could be on the BART train coming home from school and those three things just back to back to back would just come to me, to the point where I just had to pray. And I don’t know when it happened, but I realized I just wasn’t thinking about those three things anymore. I was just getting on with my life. I don’t think it was about trying to prove him wrong—even though I did.

At one stage, your work-life balance got pretty tough. And your husband, Kenny said “I guess the W-2s speak for themselves,” quit his job and stayed home to raise your children. Why do you think so few men do that?

I think there is that, you know, breadwinner-I-need-to take-care-of-my-family mentality. And that’s good. That’s fine. It was not easy for him. A reporter asked Kenny one time, how he felt about being a stay-at-home dad and he said, “a real man will do whatever it takes for his family to thrive.” When I read that in the newspaper article, I had to ask him if he actually said it because it’s just so profound.

You’re often called in to change the culture when things are not going well at a company. Is it people or is it processes you have found to be the problem?

I have found it to be more systems. People get caught up in systems unfortunately. And as leaders, we need to make sure we have the right processes and systems and procedures and practices in place for people so that they don’t get caught up in some bad system. I have found in my professional 41 years that most people get up every morning and they want to do good things. Sometimes they’re operating in a system that just goes really bad, either over time, or sometimes overnight. I believe when you find people who have gone rogue or bad, a system has allowed or created that.

Sports Illustrated uncovered a lot of harassment and a toxic workplace culture at the Mavericks before you got there. What did you do to address that?

The key thing is the behaviors and attitudes that people have about the workplace, about each other, about how they treat people, about how they make decisions, about acceptable behavior in the workplaces. In my job at the Mavs, I had the pleasure of only having at that point 120 to 140 people so I could meet with them one on one. When I’ve had larger organizations. I would pick the top 100 or 200, and then I spend time—usually about 90 days—trying to understand who’s in the workplace. What do they believe about work? Why are they here? What’s the vision that we have? Do we have values? In this case, we did not have a set of values that the Mavs operated under. At AT&T, we always have.

My recipe is to clearly lay out a vision for where we want to take the organization, lay out a set of values, if they don’t exist already. And if they do exist, then do an assessment on them. And then spend time one on one with people, come up with a plan and lay out a workplace promise. At the Mavs our workplace promise is every voice matters and everybody belongs. We needed an agenda for women, we needed to value people, we needed to have a set of values. Our values are character, respect, authenticity, fairness, teamwork and safety—both physical and emotional safety. Those were the ones that I felt really needed to be in place and operating and visible every day. [Those are] the foundational things that I put in place to make sure that we moved the needle.

You write in the book that the police were helpful to you when you were a child. In your systems thinking, do you see a way forward with police?

I’ve had very positive interactions with police, and I have sons who have been racially profiled, and I have a nephew who is a San Francisco police officer. Part of why he and his friends decided at 30 years old to get back in shape and quit their big corporate jobs is because they wanted to help. They wanted to enter these systems and be a positive force. We’ve got some systemic issues in the criminal justice system. We’ve got systemic issues in the child welfare system. I’m real focused on that. For example, Black children make up 22% of the population in Dallas County, but they made up 46% of the foster care system. Why are our Black children getting put in care at a disproportionate rate than everybody else? That’s a systemic issue that has to be addressed. I don’t know the answer. I’m not saying there aren’t parents out there who aren’t neglecting and abusing their kids because there are; I’m the mother of four that experienced that. But I also believe there’s something wrong in the system, for the numbers to look like they look.

Tell me about your theory of rubber balls and crystal balls.

This is how I try to integrate my life and make decisions, especially being a mother and executive. I decide what [obligations] are crystal balls and what are rubber balls. If I drop a crystal ball, it shatters and never comes back. But if it’s a rubber ball, I can throw it and it’ll bounce away and maybe somebody will get it and they’ll run with it. Maybe it’ll bounce back to me at some point. I look at the things that I have to get done and I set priorities based on that. I always tell people, very few things are crystal. So really think about it and know what they are and embrace them and don’t miss them.


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