To Create a Winning Culture, Lead from the Heart

By Cynt Marshall, CEO, Dallas Mavericks

Cynt Marshall is the CEO of the Dallas Mavericks and the first black female CEO in the history of the NBA. When Mark Cuban recruited Cynt for the Dallas Mavericks in 2018, they had an 18-year history of sexual harassment, misconduct, domestic violence and more. She is a dynamic force known for her cultural transformation of the Mavericks — making them the NBA standard for inclusion and diversity. Cynt was the opening keynote at the recent Culturati Summit in Austin, Texas and shared why she went to work for them anyway. To hear Cynt’s inspiring keynote, join us at the Virtual Summit, June 6 & 7 (details at the bottom).

The Animal House. That’s what Sports Illustrated called it. A reputation built on a mounting pile of complaints from women. And this was the house Cynt had been invited to. After praying on it and listening to the stories of employees, Cynt knew that she was meant to take on the task of transforming this organization. So she said yes. Yes to making a difference. Yes to people.

Cynt had seen adversity up close and personal, but she’s also seen people come together to help overcome it.

Growing up in a public housing project in San Francisco made for a challenging childhood. Cynt witnessed a lot. But fortunately, her mother put two books in her hand at an early age: a math book and the Bible. And she gave Cynt four words to live by: dream, focus, pray, and act. She learned early on what happens when a village comes together and focuses on you as an individual to give you a sense of belonging. That’s what happened to Cynt.

Cynt had fabulous educators and a community of people who showed up for her and helped block out distractions. They got her involved in activities in high school. All this support landed Cynt five full scholarships to the college of her choice.

Now Cynt’s job is to be a part of that village, to put out her hand and help somebody else get up.

Her early career had also prepared Cynt. Prior to working with The Mavs, she had a 36-year career with AT&T, first as an operations supervisor, then an engineer, then later as Senior Vice President of Human Resources and the Chief Diversity Officer. The chairman at the time was on a mission to change the culture of the company. They had had about 10 different mergers, with all these subcultures operating, (and not all of them helped). He wanted Cynt to help lead the human resources team and develop a strategy that focused on people — how they treat and how they serve them. He wanted AT&T on Fortune’s list of Great Places to Work.

Cynt thought AT&T was already a great place to work. She thought the fact that they hadn’t made that list was crazy. But after meeting with Michael Bush, the CEO of Great Place to Work, she understood why they fell short. The way she felt about the company was not universal across the organization, because the experience of working at the company was inconsistent. So they got on a mission to pull a group of people together and truly create a great place to work, a place that cared for and gave voice to all the people involved. Right before Cynt left, AT&T made that list for the first time, one of only two Fortune 50 companies to make it.

When Mark Cuban called Cynt about working with the Mavs, her decision wasn’t about his celebrity or even about basketball. What she saw was an organization that needed a vision based on values. What she saw was a community of people who needed to be heard, included, and respected. What she saw was a problem she had been given the gift of experience to solve. So Cynt put out a 100-day plan for the Mavs to set the global standard for diversity and inclusion in the NBA by the first day of 2019, nine months after she was hired.

The first thing Cynt did was talk with every single person in the organization about the real definitions of diversity, equity, and inclusion. She let them know that if they work at the Dallas Mavericks, their voice matters and they belong. And she promised it would not just be words. They would feel it, and they would see it.

Cynt told everyone that the values would be C.R.A.F.T.S. — Character, Respect, Authenticity, Fairness, Teamwork, and Safety.

There were four pieces to her plan:

  1. Model Zero Tolerance for everyone
  2. A Mavs Women’s Playbook to take the team from a predominantly White male-led one to one that is 50% women and 50% People of Color
  3. Cultural Transformation guided by the principles of all-in leadership, including intentionality, insight, inclusivity, and inspiration
  4. Operational Health with new strategies, gender pay equity, and staff retention and development

Two new hashtags emerged: #respectatwork and #perfectourCRAFTS.

What Cynt refers to as the “double pandemic” (both COVID-19 and the great social injustices that plague our country), gave her the opportunity to reaffirm and build trust within the company. Basketball games had stopped, so they turned up the focus on people. She prioritized one-on-one meetings with her employees, because part of their foundation is the belief that “Trust accelerates our success.”

She called her time priorities My New Dot Com because every action word starts with “com.”

Cynt’s New Dot Com is:

  • Compassion: People needed it. They gave them the space to process the way they needed to process.
  • Communication: They had courageous conversations, and not just once. They invited people to come in and talk to others any time.
  • Community: Community service was in great demand, and not just outside the organization. They saw their work group as the community as well.
  • Compromise: They decided none of them would compromise their health and they wouldn’t allow each other to compromise theirs.
  • Compliance: They ensured compliance with Covid protocols and adhered to the advice of the local government.

When Cynt started, there were no women or people of color on the leadership team. By leading with the heart, they’ve created a winning team, both on and off the court, with a 14-person executive team composed of half women and half people of color.

The Mavs are no longer the Animal House. They are a community of professionals operating with shared values of character, respect, authenticity, fairness, teamwork, and safety, showing anything is possible when you lead from the heart.

You can hear Cynt Marshall’s Culturati Summit keynote at the Virtual Summit, June 6 & 7, featuring the sessions from the in-person event and more. To find out more and register go here.

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