Cynthia Marshall, named interim CEO of the Dallas Mavericks in the wake of a scathing article exposing the basketball organization’s culture of sexual harassment against women, is about to give a whole new meaning to the idea of March Madness.
Meeting with the Mavericks for the first time this morning, she laid out a plan for the next month. It includes completing the internal investigation already launched by Mavericks owner Mark Cuban; personally meeting with each of the organization’s 141 employees; and formalizing a detailed process for transforming the organization’s dysfunctional culture and refining its operational effectiveness, with an emphasis on all systems and policies related to reporting and addressing employee complaints.
“We are committed to running a business of excellence,” said Marshall, in an exclusive phone interview with Black Enterprise. “Clearly we have work to do, and I walk in knowing that there’s a lot that I don’t know. But I do know how to lead, and how to effect necessary change in an organization.”
All eyes will now be on Marshall, as she attempts to manage both the fallout and rebuilding of this beleaguered NBA franchise. Once the first African American cheerleader at UC Berkeley, the telecommunications veteran is now the NBA’s first woman CEO.
“Changing industries can be difficult under normal circumstances, but there will be a lot of people rooting for her and available to assist with the transition,” says Kathleen Francis, chair and president of Women in Sports and Events (WISE), the leading voice and resource for women in the business of sports. “It is a positive step to bring in someone with her experience and credentials. Adding women to the executive suite is always a good investment. That, coupled with the full support of ownership, will be critical to her success.”
Changing What is Possible
Named as one of the Top 50 Most Powerful Women in Corporate America by BE in 2015, Marshall is a quick thinker, straight talker, and highly respected leader who was senior vice president, Human Resources and chief diversity officer at AT&T before she retired in 2017 to launch her own consulting firm.
With more than 30 years of telecommunications experience, in addition to HR, she has held positions in operations, network engineering and planning, and regulatory/external affairs. Admittedly, however, Marshall says she has never experienced sexual harassment herself. “From the minute I walked into AT&T in 1981, when it was just ‘the phone company,’ safety was critical to the culture,” Marshall recalls. “It took precedence over all else. We need that same kind of mindset everywhere in corporate America. Some think it’s just the nature of work, the nature of companies, for members of certain groups to be harassed and made to feel uncomfortable or compromised in some way. No! It is not. In almost 36 years of work, I never felt I was being sexually harassed. That is how I know it is possible.”
Answering the Call from Cuban
A San Francisco Bay area native, Marshall was on a visit to her hometown when her phone rang. It was a former colleague, calling on behalf of Maverick’s owner, Mark Cuban, who was eager for the opportunity to speak with her directly.
Cuban was facing a crisis, the colleague told her, adding, “You are uniquely positioned to be helpful to him.”
In a week dominated by headlines on the horrific Parkland, Florida, school massacre and Russian indictments, Marshall had not yet heard about the scathing expose on the Mavericks organization published by Sports Illustrated, tipping off the latest sexual harassment scandal in corporate America—and one of the worst.
The results of a monthslong SI investigation paints the Mavericks environment as one of the most outrageous and egregious exposed to date.
While one former female employee reportedly likened the organization to “a real-life Animal House,” more than a dozen current and former Mavericks employees corroborated the comparison, illuminating it in great detail with jarring accounts of a culture that was at best uncomfortable for women, at worst untenable—and that had gone unchecked for far too long.
Not surprisingly, most SI sources went unnamed due to fear of humiliation or retaliation. However, the characterization of a misogynistic corporate culture riddled by both subtle and overt inappropriateness, as well as outright predatory and abusive physical and sexual behavior, quickly became clear.
Now living in Dallas and immersed in running her own consulting firm, Marshall has never worked in sports and didn’t know the Maverick’s owner. “I don’t even watch Shark Tank,” she noted. But she took Cuban’s call and was immediately impressed by his candor.
“He was as sincere as he could be about wanting a culture change in the organization,” she said. “Everything he told me in that first call came out in the press over the next few days. He was completely transparent.”
“Doing This For the Sisterhood”
Known for her own candor and decisiveness, Marshall, who says she grew up with a physically abusive father, says she finds the accusations currently being investigated to be “repulsive,” and she appreciates Cuban’s commitment to accountability, as the NBA franchise’s owner.
What most compelled her to accept his offer to take over all non-basketball operations at such a difficult juncture, however, is her personal commitment to being a part of the change in this area so critical to progress for women.
“It infuriates me that we’re living in a time when people are being victimized in this way,” says Marshall. “I’m always talking about being mad and making a difference. When this call came, I thought, I can’t just sit on the sidelines. Instead of yelling at the TV, I’m being called into service. I’m doing this for the sisterhood, and because Mark Cuban is serious about changing the culture.”
She will be reporting to Cuban who, she says, joked that he will report to her. “His point was, if there’s something he needs to do differently, I need to let him know,” says Marshall. “Our goal is for the Dallas Mavericks organization to be a great place to work for everyone, a place of character where all individuals feel safe and feel good about going to work, and are held accountable for their actions.”
Like most movements these days, Marshall signals a new day at the Mavericks with the introduction of a hashtag: #respectatwork. “Period,” she says, for emphasis. “It really is that basic.”
Editor’s Note: Marshall’s title is still being finalized as of this article’s publish date.