CEO overcame obstacles on journey to becoming a leadership expert
By Bernard Freeman
You don’t have to be a politician to be a leader.
Cynthia Marshall is the first Black woman to be CEO of an NBA franchise, the Dallas Mavericks. She was the first Black woman to head the North Carolina Chamber of Commerce and the first Black cheerleader at the University of California, Berkeley. She spent nearly 40 years as an executive with AT&T and founded her own leadership consulting company.
To get there, she had to overcome a lot of hardships. Raised in public housing, Marshall’s father once broke her nose as she tried to protect her mom from his abuse. She witnessed him shoot a man in the head in self-defense when she was 11. Another time, he came through her bedroom window with a shotgun. When her mother left him, he threatened them and took all the furniture. He told her and her sisters that they would end up as hookers on the street without him.
She was determined that would not be the case and later in life saucily replied that she did make her money on the street—Wall Street.
Later, she and her husband spent 10 years trying to have children. She had three miscarriages, one which almost killed her, and lost a newborn daughter. They adopted four children. She’s a survivor of stage three colon cancer and 12 rounds of chemo.
In 2022, Marshall published a book about those challenges, “You’ve Been Chosen: Thriving Through the Unexpected.”
Throughout her career, people looked upon her suspiciously because of her gender and race. At one point in her career, she was told to stop wearing braids and adopt sensible shoes. At the time she did, though she has now resumed wearing braids and said if asked to do it again, she would refuse.
Indeed, later in her career, when she was already a vice president with AT&T, she got offered a promotion but was told she would have to change some things. She would have to stop using language like “blessed” (she is a devout Christian), stop using the name “Cynt” and start wearing more white. She turned the promotion down, but it was offered to her again, this time telling her she didn’t have to make those changes.
Taking on the Mavericks
When Mark Cuban cold-called to ask her to run the Mavericks, the organization was going through an investigation revealing nearly 20 years of sexual harassment and workplace misconduct. He wanted her to turn that around and make the franchise a great place to work.
When she took the job, she said she knew very little about basketball, but knew a lot about leadership. She told Time Magazine in 2022 that she met one-on-one with everyone in the organization and then created a clear vision.
“At the Mavs, our workplace promise is every voice matters and everybody belongs,” she told Time. “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.”
Marshall changed the Mavs. Before she started, they had no women or people of color on the leadership team. Now they have 50 percent women and 50 percent people of color, sparking the NBA to award them the 2022 Inclusion Leadership Award.