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Dallas Mavericks CEO Cynt Marshall on resilience and authenticity
Geoff Bennett: For Dallas Mavericks CEO Cynt Marshall the path to success was anything but easy. She grew up in the housing projects of Richmond, California, and endured a painful childhood with a violent and abusive father. But she credits her mother for instilling an unfailing work ethic and unwavering faith.
Cynt Marshall: She just passed on that spirit of grit and grace and resilience that to me. I stand on this scripture. So I really think that things happen for a reason. But I know I'm going to come out better on the other side of it.
Geoff Bennett: I spoke with Cynt Marshall this past week about her new memoir, "You've Been Chosen: Thriving Through the Unexpected." She recounts her personal and professional journey to becoming the first black female CEO in the NBA, that's followed more than three decades of climbing the corporate ladder at AT&T. I asked her about the pressure she faced back then, like female bosses telling her to change her appearance, and even change her name in order to be successful.
Cynt Marshall: Well, I think when it first happened to me, and my first week with the company, I just responded to it. Because in both of those cases, I do believe that the women were very well attended that they knew that there was a kind of culture we worked in, or they believed there was a culture we worked in, and they wanted me to be successful.
I was 21 years old, and I did what they asked me to do. I took my braids down and took off my red shoes and all of that. But 19 years later, I just said, by the time I hit 40, and I actually knew what kind of company I worked in, I knew it was a company that really nurtured authenticity. And I was right, because someone called after that and made it all right.
Geoff Bennett: I was going to say to your credit, when you were up for that promotion, you turned it down that the boss who said that you have to change your name, cut your hair, wear white, don't wear a bold quote, unquote, to ethnic colors, that you said that that wasn't for you, that wasn't the job for you.
Cynt Marshall: Right, when someone starts to cross the line to ask me to change fundamentally who I am, that's when I have to draw the line. And when I was told to use words like lucky instead of blessed, and to be Cindy or Cynthia and not Cynt, I said, OK, I am Cynt. I've been Cynt my whole life. I do believe that I'm blessed, not lucky.
I had a great job, a great VP job and I didn't want to lose that. So I just asked her to help me figure out how to keep my job, but say no, to this future one. And so I think how that has shaped me as a leader is authenticity is so important because you get the best out of people. You get the most out of people when they can bring who they are into the workplace.
Geoff Bennett: You write in your memoir that as you were navigating your professional journey, that there were personal challenges to you and your husband tried to start a family and you write about how you suffered for second trimester miscarriages.
And then when you were able to have a child she died in her infancy, Carolyn's Special K you called it.
Cynt Marshall: Special K, Special K. Yes.
Geoff Bennett: Yes, tell me about.
Cynt Marshall: Yes. I named her Carolyn with the K because my mom's name is Carolyn. And my husband's name was Kenneth. She was born four months prematurely. So that was unexpected. And so they said, she will live two days, she lives six months. And she was here for a reason. Truly, I think the doctors learned a lot. We learned a lot, a lot from it. And so the Lord took my baby at six and a half months old, it was the toughest challenge of my life.
Honestly, I just ended up just laying out on the staircase one day, when my husband left to go see his family after the funeral. And I laid there the whole weekend. I had the same clothes on when he got back home. I just needed to let it out. I just couldn't even deal with the grief.
My husband saw me when he got home. And you know, I was still in the same clothes. And he just put his hand down, he reached his hand down and he got me up. And that's the story of my life. I think that's what we have to do for each other, be that hand and lift that person up.
Geoff Bennett: And then on top of all of that Cynt, in 2010, you're diagnosed with stage three colon cancer. And the way you write about this in the book, I mean, there is not an ounce of bitterness, or resentment. And what comes through is that all of your life experiences up to that point equipped you for this diagnosis that you had no idea was coming.
Cynt Marshall: Absolutely. It's like everything that happened in my life before the end, was a setup. And you know, my mom said when I told her that I was diagnosed, her first response was, this is for His glory, that this is for a reason God will get the glory out of it. She said you will tell this story in a big way one day. And she was absolutely right. There's a scripture that says the sickness is not unto death. And she kept quoting that as well. And so here I am, cancer free, 11 years later.
Geoff Bennett: And then in 2017, you retire from AT&T and you get a call from Mark Cuban, who we've interviewed on this program before. And as I understand it, you didn't know who he was.
Cynt Marshall: Don't judge me, but I did not.
Geoff Bennett: No judgment, no judgment at all. Yes, yes. So what -- so he called you up? And what did he ask?
Cynt Marshall: he asked me if I could come in and be the CEO of the Dallas Mavericks and to help transform the culture, and to really help to create a great place to work for some well deserving people who had devoted their lives and they still have to sports. And they were not in a great work environment. And some things had unfolded there. That, you know, came out in an article, and Mark was getting more and more information by the second and realize that he needed to really make some changes.
And so I'm blessed that I was able to do that. We brought some great people in with me. And I take no credit for it. So many of us have worked very, very hard to make sure that we are on a journey for you to be a great place to work.
Geoff Bennett: When you stepped into the executive ranks of the Dallas Mavericks, there were no women and no people of color within management. How did you said about turning around that corporate culture?
Cynt Marshall: Right. And so I had no women or people of color on my executive leadership team permanent, in permanent positions. And so I have learned from my 36 years at AT&T about the value of diversity, and how it really equates to, you know, bottom line profitability, to have a diverse group of voices making decisions and looking at things.
And so I promoted some -- I brought some people in with me. So I brought two women in with me, at the executive level. We promoted some others, we hired some people. And so now we're at 50 percent women, 50 percent people of color, at our executive table and throughout the organization. And that matters.
Geoff Bennett: You write about what you call the three L's of leadership, listen, learn, and love. I was struck by the love part, because it's not something you hear from a lot of CEOs.
Cynt Marshall: Oh, you have to love the people. And when I say that, I need to get to know them who they are. What are their professional dreams? What are their personal dreams? Who are their families? I mean, just love them as people first which is truly what I try to do.
Geoff Bennett: Writing a memoir like this requires an immense amount of self-reflection. What have you learned from navigating life's most difficult challenges?
Cynt Marshall: What I have learned is that it's my theme song too. So if you ever hear me speak, you'll know what my walk up song is. And it's a no mountain high enough. I really learned that when I was writing this book is that there is no mountain high enough to keep people from getting to me to help me get up the mountain and there's no mountain high enough, no goal that's high enough to keep me from reaching it. And it's because of all the support that I get. Obviously I'm a woman of faith. So I believe the Lord has a plan for me.
But he puts people in my life. My son (INAUDIBLE) wrote a song when I was diagnosed with cancer, and the name of that song is "It's going to be OK." And so I kept thinking about that when I was writing this book at every turn. it turned out that it was OK and so we just have to have that faith and that trust that we can get through it that we not to ever lose hope.
Geoff Bennett: Cynt Marshall, the book is "You've Been Chosen." It's a real joy to speak with you. Thanks so much for being with us.
Cynt Marshall: Thanks so much for having me.