10 Leadership Lessons with Dallas Mavericks CEO Cynt Marshall
The takeaways she learned in her 40-year career at AT&T and now leading an NBA team.
For the past several years, I've had the pleasure of interviewing tech founders and CEOs on stage before an audience of entrepreneurs and investors as part of my Startups Uncensored monthly event in Southern California. With the stay-at-home orders in place, I took the opportunity to revive my fireside chat series for a virtual audience with the C-suite leaders of well-known companies including Mattel, Zoom Video and Chipotle, and I recently partnered with Entrepreneur to host a new series entitled “If I Knew Then Leadership Lessons.” The CEOs of global brands, from Waze to Blue Apron, share invaluable lessons that they learned on their path to success, as well as practical career advice they’d give other entrepreneurs, in our one-hour chats.
In the fourth episode of the series, I had the privilege of speaking to Dallas Mavericks’ CEO Cynthia "Cynt" Marshall, an especially poignant conversation that came at the same time we're examining the racist behaviors that have tainted our country for so long. She is one of the most compelling leaders I’ve ever spoken to, and her life story – full of some truly unspeakable hardships and her own incredible personal fortitude – is a journey everyone should make time to hear about. When it comes to leadership, Marshall has real wisdom to share.
Cynt Marshall’s story began in the Richmond, California housing projects, where she grew up in a home impacted by domestic violence and systemic racism. She escaped the dim horizons of the projects to study business administration and human resources management at the University of California, Berkeley – where she also became the first African American cheerleader in the university’s history. From there, Marshall spent almost 40 years – a full career for most people – successfully climbing the corporate ladder at AT&T. And in 2018, she was named the CEO of the Dallas Mavericks, making her the first Black female CEO in NBA history.
Marshall has a real knack for learning the right lessons from the setbacks she’s had to endure in her life. And her ability to illustrate how those lessons informed her leadership style and choices for the Mavs and beyond is second-to-none. Below are 10 major points she made during our talk:
1. Everyone has a role in how we reach racial justice in this country
No matter who you are or what your station is in life, this means you. Everyone will have to change some part of their lives or some comfortable way of thinking, forever. All of the toxic, racist behavior we need to actively eradicate from this culture every day is insidious. It can be hidden in our own behavior and in ideas many of us haven’t examined in decades.
2. We’re living through real paradigm shifts in our culture, so now is the time to change any behavior or practices that need changing
Take chances and be bold, as we’re in a moment where people will be understanding and forgiving of a certain uncertainty in a company’s actions. These next steps are crucial for all of us. Every day we make decisions on who to include or exclude from our workplaces and from our culture. We need to start making the right decision every day.
3. Honesty and kindness is in us as children, and it’s worthwhile to recall that when life is challenging
We need to reconnect with and remember those original settings we had as children just coming into this world. It’s a natural inclination to be honest and kind, even a survival instinct, when we’re first beginning to perceive that other people’s lives matter, too. Kindness is among the first assumptions we make when we’re just starting to think for ourselves — even at the age of 3 years old — and we need to find our way back to this innate purity that we understood early on.
4. A workplace needs to be inviting
Coworkers need to be a family, and navigating a family is often difficult but rewarding. People are coming to work to enjoy their jobs, to make money for their family and to enhance their lives. They shouldn't have to come into a hostile work environment or a place where they can expect to be mistreated.
5. Successful business plans are built with everybody in mind
The Mavericks organization has a process whereby everyone gets to contribute and put their ideas and their energy into a new way of operating. It needs to be okay for anyone internally to ask, “Are we okay? Is this particular process working as well as it could?”
6. A player can score 50 points, but it’s the team as a unit that will ultimately count
If the coaching is bad, that one player can’t save the team. Everyone has to be on point when its game day. Everyone needs to be ready to say, “Put me in, coach.” And as a leader, you need to help make them ready by giving them the tools they need to develop their skills, so they can take advantage of those skills when they find themselves with the ball.
7. Accept that bad things really do happen to good people, but keep going and prevail
It’s unfortunate that setbacks and loss are a part of our lives, but that’s the reality of the situation we’ve been dealt as human beings. You have to accept them and then you have to prevail, because that’s the game as life would have it. Life wants us to keep going even when it simultaneously ruins our year.
8. Life hands you crystal balls and rubber balls, and it’s important for you to know the difference in your life and career
In other words, there’s a difference between doing things right and doing the right thing. Some things are okay to drop, because they’re rubber balls, and they’re eager to return to you. Other things are crystal balls, and mishandling them means losing something that won’t be coming around again.
9. A good D&I plan can be enacted very quickly
Marshall famously put together a 100-day diversity and inclusion plan to deal with the organization’s dysfunctional culture as she took the CEO reins. She put up poster boards all around the office to remind everyone of their part in the four-part plan. The Mavericks’ leadership went from having no women in permanent leadership positions to a current leadership team that is almost 50 percent women and 47 percent people of color.
10. Always remember where you came from, because you might forget where you're going.
“I've never been embarrassed about being poor when I was a kid, or about any of that,” Marshall says. “It’s easy to get lost, but your roots can be a beacon for you in times of trouble. It really is the purpose of the journey.”
For more of the incredible lessons learned along Cynt Marshall’s inspiring journey, watch the hour-plus webinar. Some people are just born with "the right stuff" to be a CEO, and this leader proves that she deserves her spot at the top.
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