About two years before she’d be tapped to repair the Mavericks’ culture after a sexual harassment scandal, Cynt Marshall was in a third-floor boardroom at AT&T’s downtown headquarters recalling the moment she spoke up. It was in the late 1980s, a day or two after Southwestern Bell merged with Pacific Bell, and her new boss wasn’t getting the full story from Marshall’s higher ups. They had a plan to say only so much.
“My bosses in there weren’t giving him the whole story, and that’s why I kind of had a little scowl, like, ‘am I gonna really tell him what’s going on up in here with these regulatory agencies?” I’m thinking, ‘he needs the full story,’” said Marshall, who, in 2016, occupied the top HR position at AT&T. “He knew they weren’t telling him everything – they weren’t lying, but they weren’t telling him everything. They had a little plan. He said he just caught me. He said, ‘she just looks like she has something to say.’ And I was writing a lot, which I still do. I said, ‘well let me just add to some of the things they said.’ And he got the whole story. He said he went home that night and thought, I’ve gotta put her on my leadership team.”
She was answering a question about how to empower employees. Sometimes, she argued, all it takes is for a person in a position of power to look a colleague in the eye and ask what they think. Marshall would log 36 years with AT&T, ascending all the way up to the corporation’s chief diversity officer. She retired last year, and now is the person Mavs owner Mark Cuban believes will help fix the team’s business side, which is marred by a harassment scandal. She’ll be asking a lot of employees to speak their minds, many of whom may have never felt comfortable doing so.
An investigation by Sports Illustrated found that its former CEO, Terdema Ussery, allegedly would make references to sex acts, touch employees, and had been investigated for harassment 17 years before he left the organization. The report also found that its head of HR, Buddy Pittman, allowed the behavior to occur and would minimize or bully employees who spoke up. The organization also allowed beat writer Earl K. Sneed to keep his job after being arrested at work for allegedly beating up a girlfriend. The Mavs have hired two outside investigators to conduct their own dive into what happened. The NBA immediately established a hotline for any league staffer to file anonymous complaints against their employers. Marshall said she planned to meet with each of the team’s 140 employees, as well as those from its past.
“I was disgusted by the allegations of what has happened here in the past,” Marshall said. “There is no place for this, no place at all, and we have zero tolerance for it.”
Marshall was introduced in a Monday afternoon press conference, and she seems to have cracked the code to keep Cuban’s mouth shut. He wouldn’t bite on repeated attempts from a reporter to reveal how much he knew and when, saying he would wait for the findings of the third-party investigation before commenting further. Cuban has said he was unaware of the harassment occurring inside the team’s business arm, a claim many have questioned because of his hands-on reputation. “That report will come out,” he said. “Cynt will decide what to do at that point.”
“I won’t let him talk,” she said. “Hush.”
Marshall was born in Alabama but moved to a Bay Area housing project when she was young. She said she was a victim of domestic violence, and, when she was 11, watched as her father shot a man in the head in self-defense. Four years later, her father left the family. She eventually worked her way through school and was accepted to the University of California at Berkeley. Years later, she recalled a reaction from a senior leader at AT&T after she told him where she graduated college.
“A senior leader came up to me and said, ‘you didn’t go to Berkeley; you’ve gotta be smart to go to Berkeley.’ I said, ‘I’m not just beautiful and I don’t just wear fancy shoes. I’m smart too.’ He says, ‘Cynt, I am so sorry I said that,’” she remembered. “I said, ‘I’m not offended by that at all. When I went to Berkeley, black people represented .1 percent of the school.”
She tells that story as an example of the unconscious biases that she believes all of us have. At AT&T, she oversaw major initiatives that included training for those biases, to identify lapses that can be examined and fixed. She was an integral part of a companywide effort to identify high-performing women and steer them toward training for leadership roles. She thinks on her feet and knows the impact that a boss can have on a workplace. Marshall remembers AT&T’s chairman encouraging women and people of color to promote others like them.
“He said, ‘I expect everybody to bring up everybody, so if I expect everybody to bring up everybody, why would African Americans or women or Hispanics shy away from bringing up their own people? That doesn’t make sense to me. You guys are falling into the problem,’” she said. “Isn’t that awesome to have a chairman say that? Our numbers got better. It’s like people felt free to do what they should’ve been doing in the first place. But it starts at the top.”
Many of the quotes from this story came from an interview I did with Marshall for a D CEO cover story in 2016 on diversity, inclusion, and how women are treated in the workplace. As you can tell from the anecdotes, she had a story to go along with each of the principles she discussed. She said she came to Cuban’s office knowing she had something to add, and she approached the gig with skepticism. “I am a brand,” she said Monday.
Their meeting lasted 52 minutes, and she said that was enough time to gauge Cuban’s sincerity on wanting things to change. She typed up a two-page plan about how to respond over the weekend and offered to show it to Cuban; he said he didn’t need to see it, that he trusted her.
“That was a test,” she said, smiling. “This is going on all over the country. I want us to be a model—here’s what to do when this happens. Here is how you make employees feel safe. Here is how to transform a culture to include diversity and inclusion. Here are the operational systems to put in place to make sure the process works for employees. I want us to be that model for how to do this. And we will be.”