How the Dallas Mavericks CEO Took on Toxic Culture

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.

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. Three miscarriages nearly cost her life and she lost her newborn daughter. She also discusses her adoption and successful fight against stage 3 colon cancer.

Marshall discussed with TIME how her religious beliefs have affected her outlook on life and work. She also spoke out about the cultural changes she made at Mavericks. And why everyone she thinks is chosen.

This interview has been edited to be more concise.

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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. Does that sound true?

This is the truth. I didn’t really know this kind of job existed.

How was the learning curve?

Because we were undergoing a transformation of the company and dealing with longstanding problems, I had to lift some weight. I entered during an investigation. [into toxic workplace culture]It was already underway. It was now the start of the season. My task was to rid the old culture of its remnants and create a new one. I also had to manage resistance from change managers. And then you’ve got to please your fans and run a business all at the same time. There were many moving parts. I didn’t know the business of basketball; I know how to lead people. I can create 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.

The book you are reading 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. The first Black woman president of the North Carolina Chamber of Commerce. Your achievements were numerous. 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. Yes. I often said this during my battle with cancer. This book covers my entire life, including the times when I was faced with hardships and the ways God and other great people helped. I also realized there was something deeper and something that had happened that prepared me for what was ahead. 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. There were many things that I was selected for. We are all, I believe.

You write about the importance of your “focused, optimistic people driven energy” to your career success, but there must have been some tough moments. What are your strategies for dealing with these?

It is not easy. I don’t cry a lot about work. However, I can get very emotional if someone has to be fired. 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. To change the culture of our workplace, I had to let them go. 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. It’s easy to pretend it is soft. You can try to show empathy, compassion and still take action.

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. It probably got more complicated as I took on bigger and more responsible jobs. The thing I discovered was the higher the responsibility, the more scrutinized I became and the more that I saw. 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.

Does it have to do with the fact that women are more trusted than men? Or is it the African American thing? Is it the female thing or is there something else causing this distrust?

It’s a sort of combination. I’m a Black woman executive. It’s all three. People of color are affected by it, I’m sure. It is a problem that I have seen women suffer from. Just think that it is subject to extra scrutiny. There are people with biases about some 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.

Someone once advised that you take off your braids to get more practical shoes. It was a good idea. What would you do if in the same place today?

This is how I see it: The woman gave me that advice because she believed that I was doing the right thing. Her belief was that I would be successful if I looked a certain direction if I were to work in the same place. It was a great decision. What do I think I would do if I had the knowledge now? No. No. [braided]July 6, 2008 was the 40th anniversary since I started my professional career. This was a way for me to convey to my employers, as well as to other women like myself that your hair can be worn in any style you wish. You can deliver the goods in braids with red boots or fuchsia boots. [I’m wearing now.] But no, I wouldn’t do that again. I would go.

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. Do you remember ever thinking of applying for HR at that time?

No. Just thought. What decision do I make to take this offer? I made a snap 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. At that moment, I was much more worried about my ability to decline the promotion and keep my job. Already a VP, I helped my family and many people. The call came back later and everything turned out fine [to not make those changes.]Later, I realized it was completely absurd. But that’s not where I went at the moment.

Your 51st birthday was the day you learned that stage 3 colon carcinoma had already progressed. Lots of people don’t survive that. Yet, you didn’t doubt that you could beat it. This was 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 was going to need chemo and I had to see the doctor. It was something I could not lose.

Again, a lot of people get sick and get healing prayer and take it to their faith communities, and they don’t get better. Is it possible that people could read this to indicate they don’t believe enough in God and are therefore not healed?

Here’s what somebody said to me one day and it so resonated. It was all about [a friend with pancreatic cancer]And I told her she had lost her fight. And this person said, ‘Why would you say she lost her battle? She’s in a better place. The battle was won. This might be a loss for you. Her family might not see it as a loss.’ So I had to check my words because I never thought about it like that.

You had a tough childhood. Your father beat your mom, broke your nose and pointed a gun at you through a car’s window. After that, he shot one man directly in front of your face. He stole everything from your mother when he finally left you. He robbed all the furniture when your mother left him.

My childhood was good, I thought. It was probably my mother who protected me from many of the things that could have ruined my childhood. My father called me on the night that I graduated from college to tell me he was going to get a car. 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. A few years later, he called me. It is likely he realized he was extremely sick at the time and made a series of remorseful calls. He accepted my apology, and that was it. That was his last conversation with me.

At one time, he said that your sister and you would be living on the streets. With a flourish, you claim that you made your living on the streets. But it was Wall Street. Is it possible to say that your entire life has been driven by the desire to prove your father wrong.

I did prove him wrong. It was more of a feeling of purpose, and the knowledge that God had great things for us. My mom taught me to get what I wanted. 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. These three thoughts would come back to me as I rode the BART train home from school. And I don’t know when it happened, but I realized I just wasn’t thinking about those three things anymore. It was all about me just moving on with my day. I don’t think it was about trying to prove him wrong—even though I did.

Your work-life balance was quite difficult at one point. And your husband, Kenny said “I guess the W-2s speak for themselves,” quit his job and stayed home to raise your children. Is it not strange that so few men are capable of doing this?

I think there is that, you know, breadwinner-I-need-to take-care-of-my-family mentality. And that’s good. That’s fine. He found it difficult. 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. Are you focusing on people or processes?

This is what I found to be the most systemic. Unfortunately, people get caught up with systems. 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. In my 41-year career, I’ve found that people are motivated to achieve good results every day. Sometimes they’re operating in a system that just goes really bad, either over time, or sometimes overnight. If you see people acting roguely or badly, it is likely that the system allowed them to do so.

Sports Illustrated revealed that the Mavericks had a culture of bullying and harassment before they were even founded. How did you address this?

It is all about what people think and do about their workplace. My job with the Mavericks was a one-on-one experience. I only had 120 to 140 employees. 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. They believe what they think about work. What are their motivations for being here? What’s the vision that we have? Are we able to identify our values? The Mavs did not operate under the set of values we had. 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. If they are already in place, do an assessment. Then, spend some time with each person to develop a plan. The Mavs’ workplace promise is to make every voice count and ensure everyone has equal opportunity. It was necessary to set a goal for women and to recognize the value of people. We also needed a list of values. Our values are character, respect, authenticity, fairness, teamwork and safety—both physical and emotional safety. These were the values I believed most important and needed to be present and easily visible each day. [Those are]These are the fundamental things I set up to ensure that the needle moves.

The book says that you felt the police helped you as a child. Do you think systems can help police to move forward?

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. His friends and he decided to get fit and leave their large corporate jobs at the age of 30 because they were eager to assist others. Their goal was to be positive and enter the systems. 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. Black children are 22% of Dallas County’s population, yet they make up 46% in the foster care system. Why do Black children get placed in foster care at an disproportionately high rate than the rest of us? 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.

Please tell me your thoughts on crystal balls and rubber balls.

This is how I integrate my life, make decisions and be a mom and an executive. It is up to me what I want. [obligations]Are rubber balls crystal balls or rubber balls? A crystal ball that I drop will shatter and not come back if it is dropped. 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. Priorities are determined based upon what I need to do. People often forget that not everything is clear. So really think about it and know what they are and embrace them and don’t miss them.

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