Leadership & Management

Cynt Marshall: Workplace Culture as a Measure of Success

In this View From The Top episode, the CEO of the Dallas Mavericks shares why it takes a diverse and inclusive workplace culture to get things done.

February 23, 2023

| by Jenny Luna

“You know what kind of culture you have by how your employees are feeling on Sunday night when they think about getting ready to go back to work on Monday morning.”

When Cynt Marshall was hired as the CEO of the Dallas Mavericks in 2018, she presented her vision: that the organization would become a global standard for inclusion and diversity. “I truly believe if you have an inclusive culture and a diverse group of employees, you can get anything done,” Marshall says. “I’ve lived it. There’s a bottom line impact to having diversity, and having equity in your organization, and an inclusive culture.”

In this View From The Top interview, Marshall sits down with Sankalp Banarjee, MBA ’23, to share stories of how she stepped into her authentic self as a leader, how she navigated personal and professional challenges, and how she keeps burn-out at bay.

“A lot of times people ask the question, ‘What keeps you up at night?’ I say, ‘No, to me, the question is, ‘What gets you up in the morning?’”

Marshall was named one of 15 of the world’s most inspiring female leaders by Forbes in 2021. In March 2020 and several times prior, she was selected as one of the “50 Most Powerful Women in Corporate America” by Black Enterprise magazine.

Stanford GSB’s View From The Top is the dean’s premier speaker series. It launched in 1978 and is supported in part by the F. Kirk Brennan Speaker Series Fund.

During student-led interviews and before a live audience, leaders from around the world share insights on effective leadership, their personal core values, and lessons learned throughout their career.

Full Transcript

Cynt Marshall: When I got there the first thing I did, I gave them a vision that said we would set the global standard for diversity, equity and inclusion. Because if you have an inclusive culture and a diverse group of employees you can get anything done. I’ve lived it. There’s a bottom line impact to having diversity, and having equity in your organization, and an inclusive culture.

Sankalp Banerjee: That was Cynt Marshall, CEO of the Dallas Mavericks. Cynt visited Stanford Graduate School of Business as part of View From the Top, a speaker series where students, like me, sit down to interview business leaders from around the world.

I’m Sankalp Banerjee, an MBA student of the Class of 2023. I had the pleasure of interviewing Cynt. She spoke about maintaining authenticity, navigating personal and professional challenges as a leader, and transforming culture in organizations. You’re listening to View From The Top, the podcast.

Sankalp Banerjee: It’s an absolute privilege to have you here with us.

Cynt Marshall: It’s so good to be here.

Sankalp Banerjee: Welcome to Stanford.

Cynt Marshall: Yes.

Sankalp Banerjee: And welcome back to the Bay Area.

Cynt Marshall: Yes, it’s so good to be in the Bay Area, and it’s actually good to be on Stanford’s campus. I am a Berkeley grad, but I wore red today for everybody.


Cynt Marshall: I wore red today. We are so blessed here in the Bay Area to have just such fabulous, fabulous schools so it’s good to be here. It’s good to be here.

Sankalp Banerjee: It’s an honor. Well, before we dive in I believe we were able to find some pictures of yours –

Cynt Marshall: Oh, Lord.

Sankalp Banerjee: — from over the years.

Cynt Marshall: Oh, my goodness.

Sankalp Banerjee: And I’d love to share some of them with the audience, it that’s all right.

Cynt Marshall: Okay, you go right ahead.


Sankalp Banerjee: So this is you —

Cynt Marshall: Oh, Lord.

Sankalp Banerjee: — in college.

[Laughter, applause]

Cynt Marshall: Oh, my god.

Sankalp Banerjee: You’re at Berkeley, as you mentioned. You’re a part of the cheerleading squad.

Cynt Marshall: Yes.

Sankalp Banerjee: Do you remember this picture?

Cynt Marshall: Yeah, I think we won the big game that year.

Sankalp Banerjee: Oh, okay.


Sankalp Banerjee: Well, it could be Stanford. We’ll move right along.

Cynt Marshall: I do remember that picture. I do remember that picture. Oh, my goodness, I should bring that afro back. I remember that picture.

Sankalp Banerjee: And this is you several decades later.

Cynt Marshall: Oh, my goodness, yes.

Sankalp Banerjee: You’re now the CEO of the Dallas Mavericks.

Cynt Marshall: Yes.

Sankalp Banerjee: You’re still cheering.

Cynt Marshall: Yes.

Sankalp Banerjee: And somehow, it looks to me like you’ve got just as much energy as when you were 19.

Cynt Marshall: Yes. Yeah, I do, I do, I do.

Sankalp Banerjee: What’s your secret?

Cynt Marshall: I have a lot of energy. Just taking care of myself, enjoying life, having a passion about what I do every day. When you have a passion about what you do every day you just get up with energy. A lot of times, people ask the question, “What keeps you up at night?” I say, “No, to me, the question is, ‘What gets you up in the morning?’”

It’s about truly doing something that gets you up in the morning, and you just wake up with energy. You wake up with passion and so, I’m just fired up all the time. People ask my husband and my kids, they’re like, “Is she like that all the time?” My sister will tell you, “Yes.” I’m like this all the time, yes, yes.

Sankalp Banerjee: Something for all of us to emulate, for sure.

Cynt Marshall: That’s right, think about what gets you up in the morning. That’s the question you want to be able to answer.

Sankalp Banerjee: Cynt, you have an incredible story, and there’s so much that’s transpired in between these two pictures.

Cynt Marshall: Yes.

Sankalp Banerjee: But I’d love to start at the very beginning.

Cynt Marshall: Okay.

Sankalp Banerjee: You grew up in Easter Hill.

Cynt Marshall: Yes.

Sankalp Banerjee: Not too far from here in Richmond, California.

Cynt Marshall: That’s right.

Sankalp Banerjee: And you grew up in what most people would describe to be very difficult circumstances. Your mother at the time said that, “It’s not about where you live, but how you live.”

Cynt Marshall: Yes.

Sankalp Banerjee: Tell us about Easter Hill and what did your mother mean by that?

Cynt Marshall: Okay, I love that question, and you’ve probably heard me say before that despite some of the things that happened because all face adversity I actually believe I had a good childhood. And I believe some of the things that I saw and experienced are just things that people see and experience in their childhood.

My parents moved from Birmingham, Alabama so if you know your civil rights history which I hope you do especially with this being Black History Month there was a church in Birmingham, Alabama. The 16th Street Baptist Church that was bombed where four little girls lost their lives. Actually, two others lost their lives afterwards. And then, there was also the Bethel Street Baptist Church where Reverend Shuttlesworth, his place there was bombed.

Those churches are the churches that my mom grew up in. The churches that my mom attended. She left in March of 1960 when I was three months old. I was the baby, and then [Roz] came after we came to – stand up, Roz and wave to everybody. Stand up and wave at everybody.


Cynt Marshall: So she was the first one born out here in California.

Sankalp Banerjee: Okay.

Cynt Marshall: And then I have a brother who was born after that so six of us grew up in the Easter Hill Public Housing projects, and my mother stressed education, and that’s when she would say, “It’s not where you live, it’s how you live.” Zip code doesn’t matter, education does,” and so, my father stressed it as well. His line was, “Get your lesson. Get your lesson.” Meaning take care of your educational business.

We grew up knowing that that was important, but I also had some things that happened. When I was 11 years old I saw my father actually shoot a man in the head, and it was in self-defense because this young man who we actually went to church with approached our house. We were all in the back room and my mother had us all in the back, and I wanted to be nosy, believe it or not, and Roz can attest to it, I was actually a fairly quiet kid. We handled our business, but I was nosy.

All this commotion was at the front door, and I sneaked out because I wanted to know what was going on. And that’s when my father in self-defense shot this man because the silver pistol was pointed down at me, and my father was going to do whatever he had to do to defend his family. Fortunately, it wasn’t fatal, but you can imagine the chaos that broke out in our family.

Sankalp Banerjee: Absolutely.

Cynt Marshall: We had to be sequestered in the house, but some of us said, “We’ve got to go to school,” and I said, “I’ve got to go to school,” because I loved school. I loved it. My mother had a uniformed police office, Officer [Dale Prader] to take me to school in the seventh grade, and he’s either get on the bus with me or he’d put me in his police car.

He never put the siren or anything on, but he got me to school. And in fact, when I got this job, and they had all that detail, put all this detail on me I said, “You don’t have to explain it to me. I had a Secret Service when I was 11 years old.”


Cynt Marshall: “I know how this stuff works.” And then, four years later, my parents got a divorce. An ugly, bloody divorce. My father broke my nose when I was 15 years old and so, I went back to school with a brace on my nose, and that’s when three teachers and a principal found out what was going on. Really embraced me. Knew that my mom had a desire for all of her kids to go to college.

Roz and I decided we were going to be the first ones to graduate from a big four-year school and make it happen. Others were doing their own thing, but we had these big dreams about going to college and so, the rest is history. I ended up getting five full scholarships to the college of my choice and chose Berkeley because it was close to home.

Normally, what I say is, “Not because it’s the number one public institution in the world, okay?” So public, okay? Public, but it was close to home, and one of my scholarships came with a car and all that. I wanted to stay close to home with my younger brothers, and sisters, and my mom. I got a great, great education. My zip code didn’t matter.

That’s my desire these days in our country. The zip code should not matter. That everyone should be afforded the great education that I was able to get. That Roz was able to get. My other cousin, Roz is here. Stand up, cousin Roz. It’s so good to have these honeys.


Cynt Marshall: It’s so good to have them here be usually, I’m in and out of California so I never get to see them, but somehow, they caught me so I was so glad. I’m so glad they’re here. So anyway, but we were blessed to get a great education. That’s what my mother, what she meant about, “It’s not where you live, it’s how you live. It’s about handling your business, getting your education, having a set of values that you stand on.”

We had a set of values that we stood on. Faith was important. Really important. She kept us in church. We were those kids on the front row. We were in the front pew, and you have to behave. My mother would look down from the choir stand, and you just couldn’t act up, okay?

We were raised very disciplined, and to be very respectful, and to work hard, and that’s what we saw. Even through adversity we were taught that we had to make it through it and so, we did. All that is a part of my foundation. The values that I was raised on and that I have are the values honestly, that I bring into the workplace wherever I go.

Sankalp Banerjee: And you mentioned the scholarships and getting to go to the college of your choice

Cynt Marshall: Yes.

Sankalp Banerjee: Before you enrolled you had an interesting conversation with your boyfriend at the time.

Cynt Marshall: Yes.

Sankalp Banerjee: What did you tell him?

Cynt Marshall: Okay, so here’s what I told him. During my first week in college it was a big deal for me. Stepping foot on Berkeley’s campus, and I actually remember I started in the summer. Seeing everything big. The Sather Gate. Just all that, and you know how it is when you step foot on a campus. You’ve all been there. It’s just a whole different experience, right? My first week in college my boyfriend – I had two, but my distant boyfriend – my distant boyfriend, “Hey, until you put a ring on it, okay?”


Cynt Marshall: So my distant boyfriend, he called and he says, “I changed schools,” because he was in Fresno, so in the Central Valley in Fresno and Clovis. And he says, “I’ve changed schools. I’m at San Francisco State University now so that I can be close to you.” Now, this is my first week in college. That sounds sweet, right? He says, “So surprise, I’m across the bridge.”

I said, “Surprise, boyfriend, I’ve got news for you. I’ve got a surprise for you. I will call you when I graduate.” So I saw him once after that. He’d actually go – my sister can attest to it – he’d go and see my mom and tell my mom he was going to marry me and all that, but I needed to handle my business so I just didn’t want to be bogged down.

What I told him was I didn’t have time for some smooth-talking cutie who wanted to play when I needed to study. I wanted to enjoy my experience, but also, handle my business. The day I graduated from college I called him.

Sankalp Banerjee: You did exactly what you said you were going to do.

Cynt Marshall: He couldn’t appreciate that though.


Cynt Marshall: I said, “Hi, this is Cynt.” I said, “Kenny, this is Cynt.” He said, “Cynt who?” I said, “Wait a minute, boy, don’t act like you don’t know me, okay?” Because I know he had been keeping in contact with my mom and all that. I said, “Don’t act like you don’t me,” and I was fired up. I said, “I just graduated from college, and I’m so fired up. I got this job at the phone company,” where he was actually working at the time, and his dad actually retired from there.

I was just fired up about my future, my family’s future, and all that, and he said, “Who is this again?” I said, “Don’t act like you don’t know who I am.” My mom was having a party at 6:00. “She’s still there in Easter Hill, but she’s going to be getting out. Be at the party, 6:00.” And he said he couldn’t come to the party because he was engaged. That’s the wrong answer.

He says, “I haven’t talked to you in almost four years,” and I said, “Well, I kept my end of the bargain. I told you I was going to call you when I graduated. I just graduated at 2:00. It’s 3:00. You waited an hour, okay?” So in his mind it’s four years. In my mind it’s an hour. I did what I said I was going to do. Well, anyway, on April the 30th of this year I will be married to that boy for 40 years.

Sankalp Banerjee: Wow.


Cynt Marshall: So, yes, yes, he came to the party.

Sankalp Banerjee: Just incredible.

Cynt Marshall: He came to the party so whenever we move our kids into college, or one of our nieces, or nephews after we move them all in I’ve got my whole mommy routine where I decorate the dorm rooms and do all that. And so, right before we leave he says, “I think there’s a phone call that you’re supposed to make. This is where you take your boyfriend, and girlfriend, and put them on hold until you graduate,” so yes.

Sankalp Banerjee: I guess patience truly is a virtue.

Cynt Marshall: It really is. I tell him all the time he was that close to missing out on his blessing. I mean, like that close. That close, but he didn’t.

Sankalp Banerjee: So you graduate from Berkeley.

Cynt Marshall: Yes.

Sankalp Banerjee: I believe you had 13 job offers?

Cynt Marshall: You did your homework. You did your homework. You’re good. You are good.

[Laughter, applause]

Sankalp Banerjee: And out of all these options you chose AT&T where you started at age 21.

Cynt Marshall: Yes.

Sankalp Banerjee: And you stayed, and reached some of the highest levels of the organization. At the very beginning though what did you want from your career? What was most important to you?

Cynt Marshall: Okay, so when I was interviewing on campus I had two criteria. Only two. I said, “I want the job that paid me the most money,” and I wouldn’t advise that, but that’s where I was. That’s a long time ago. “I want the job that pays me the most money,” and back then they paid me $16, 200 a year. That was a way long time ago.

So I wanted the job that paid me the most money, but also, a job where I could be the boss at 21 years old. It wasn’t really about being the boss. It was about leading people and serving people because I had had some leadership experience in life activities and all that, but I wanted a job where I could truly serve people.

AT&T had a fast-track management program, and I started out supervising. You all don’t know anything about this. I’m trying to look around at the ages in here. Back in the day when you would dial 0 – and that was not even cell phones – to get your calls made and so, I supervised those operators in San Francisco.

Sankalp Banerjee: Oh, okay.

Cynt Marshall: I worked the night shift because I liked night classes and evening classes. I’m not a morning person, and that’s why the timing of this is perfect. If this was a breakfast, but this is perfect. I’m a night person and so, I supervised these operators, and it was great. To this day those operators and the union employees, they taught me just about everything I know about my leadership philosophy to this day. They taught me how to truly serve. How to walk into a place when you really don’t know anything, and I was very honest.

I walked in and I said, “Okay, it’s my first job. I don’t know anything.” And they’re laughing like, “We know you don’t know anything. We already know that.” But I told them I was willing to learn and that I knew my job was to serve them and to make their lives better personally and professionally.

They put me through the paces. They had a list of things that they had wanted to do, and management wouldn’t listen to them so here they had this 21-year-old, and they would give me the list and say, “Cynt, let’s try this. Let’s try that.” I’m 21 years old. I’m like, “Okay, that sounds good.”

And then, I would go to my boss and she said, “Oh, no, we can’t do this,” so this one policy in particular I wanted to change. These operators had been working on it for years. To me, it was like an inhumane policy where they had to sign up to go to the bathroom and all kind of stuff because, of course, you’re trying to look at call volumes and traffic. They said, “No, we want the company to trust us, and here’s how we want to do this.”

So they laid it all out. I said, “Okay,” and so, I convinced my boss to let us try it. And she didn’t want to try it, but we did. Our results went from the worst in the company literally to the best in the company because we listened to the people who were closest to the work, and they knew we trusted them. They held each other accountable, and we changed the whole system for the company actually, across the United States.

Sankalp Banerjee: So it’s developing that trust while maintaining your commitment to service?

Cynt Marshall: Well, yeah, you have to serve them. When you walk into a job yes, you’re the boss, but all that means is you are here to serve these people. I have a leadership philosophy that’s based on three Ls. I believe as a leader if I want to truly be effective I only need to do three things, and I need to do them extremely well. Listen to the people, learn from the people, and love the people, and truly love them as people.

Not as employees, not as AT&T employees, not as a Mavs employee, not where people walk in to a phone booth, and then they put on a cape, and they have a big T or M on their chest. That’s not who I want. The person who gets up out of bed in the morning, the issues they have, the problems they have, the backgrounds they have, the dreams they have, all of that is what I want to walk into my doors.

When that person walks into my doors I need to be able to meet them where they are and really serve them. That means I need to really love them for who they are. Not try to change them to be somebody else, but accept that person. I need to listen to them. When I first got the Mavs I spent literally, 90 days. I met with every single employee in the organization.

Every single employee, and I would start off with the same question. Not a question, a statement. I said, “Tell me about yourself. Give me your whole life story.” Undoubtedly, they would start off and say, “Oh, this is my fifth season at the Mavs,” or, “This is my seventh season at the Mavs.” I said, “Were you born here? I want your life story,” and the reason that’s important is because I want to know who’s sitting in front of me.

And then, we’d talk about all kind of Mav stuff, and then I said, “Okay, tell me where you see yourself five years from now personally and professionally because I really believe my job as a leader, and our job as an executive leadership team is to help you get there personally and professionally. We have to invest in you,” but you don’t know that if you don’t listen to people and truly let them talk, and then you have to learn about their job. Learn about what they do.

When I was at AT&T I went to pole climbing school. The installers were probably four levels below me, but I went to pole climbing school because I wanted to be able to appreciate what they were going through every day so I could really serve them and give them what they needed. So you listen to the people, learn from the people, and really love them as people, not as employees. That’s my secret.

Sankalp Banerjee: Yeah, and you used those leadership principles to really seek advancement at AT&T, but the process of advancement wasn’t always easy. I think in your book you mentioned a conversation where you’re up for promotion to the officer level at AT&T, and your boss is calling to congratulate you, but there’s some conditions attached and maybe even some problems with your name.

Cynt Marshall: Man, you really did do your homework. Okay, yes, okay, so first of all, I turned down four promotions in my career because there was one reason or another. Usually, it was because there was something else I wanted to learn about the company. After my first job with these operators I actually got a job offer. They wanted me to replace my boss. She was getting ready to retire, and they wanted me to be the second-level manager.

I turned that down because here I am, 22, 23 years old. I planned to have a career with this company. I want to know more than just operator services. I’m working in a technical company and so, I ended up taking a job as a network engineer because I wanted to know about the company so it was a lateral move. But then I had a boss tell me, he says, “Okay, you can’t just keep accepting lateral moves. You’ve got to start moving up.” Especially, I was on this fast track management program.

I never sought advancement. I knew I was supposed to get to director level within five years. My family was pulling for me. Everybody wanted it to happen. Once that happened I was like, “Okay, I just want to enjoy my career,” but positive things kept happening because I was actually delivering the goods, leading people, and so, good things were happening.

When I finally get this call 25 years into it to be an officer I had just walked in the house. My boss called and she said, “Congratulations, the board just elected you to be an officer of the corporation.” And I said, “An officer of the corporation?” I knew what it was. I was already in a big VP job in my San Francisco office down on Montgomery Street so I was already doing great. Delivering a lot of good policy for the company and just doing some great things. It actually caught me off guard because I wasn’t trying to do it.

My husband is in the background, and he’s smiling, and I said, “Okay,” and she says, “Okay, so let me give you some advice. Let me tell some things that I want.” And she said, “I just left a magazine on your desk so when you get back to work you’ll see a magazine.” I think it was a Black Enterprise magazine. She said, “There are all these black people on the cover. They’re wearing white, and the ladies have short hair so I think you would look great in white, and I think you would look great in a short haircut,” and she starts describing this haircut.

And I’m thinking, “What does this have to do with the job?” But she, in her mind, was coaching me and giving me some ideas on how to step into this officer role. Then she said, “And you’re going to have to change your name. You can’t be Cynt. No Cynt. You have to be Cindy or Cynthia because nobody knows what a Cynt is, nobody ever heard of that.” Well, I heard of it. I’ve been Cynt my whole life.


And most of the people that I grew up with, black people named Cynthia with the exception of my sister had a friend named Cindy Holloway. That was the only black Cindy I knew. I knew people as Cynt, but she didn’t so she wanted me to change my name. Then she said, “People are in your office all the time because that’s the place where people just want to come. They feel like they can talk to you and all that. You’re going to have to stop talking to all these people.”

And then, of course, what she wanted me to wear so she literally just started giving me this whole picture that was not me. Now, coaching is one thing because we all need to be coached. Because sometimes, you’re in environments that are new, the culture is new, all that. You need to know how to show up. But then when you start talking like this it’s getting crazy, but here’s where it went over the edge.

She says, “And you have to stop using the word blessed. You have to use the word lucky.” I said, “Well, what if I don’t think I’m lucky? Yeah, so what if I don’t think I’m lucky? That I think I’m blessed.” She goes, “No, no, no, no church-y kind of words. You can’t do any of that.” And that’s when I said, “Okay, so here’s what we’re going to do.” I need you to help me figure out how to tell the company no. That I’m not going to accept this officer promotion because my sense is you are fundamentally trying to change who I am.”

And you know what? My first week in the company I had a boss who made me get rid of my red shoes and my braids, and I came home and had to stay up all night with my family taking down my braids. And here it is some 19, 20 years later, and this is still going on, but the difference is I’m a different person and so, I’m not going to accept this.

She helped me come up with the words because my biggest concern is I don’t want to lose my current job, and I’ve got a big job, and I’m doing great. I’m taking care of my family so I don’t want to lose my current job, but, “I’m not going to accept this because you’re asking me to be somebody else.” So she came up with the words. She said, “Okay, I agree with you,” because I guess I wasn’t sophisticated enough or something. I don’t know, but pretty much that’s what she was saying. That’s where I left it.

And then, a few minutes later her boss called me, and then the chairman of AT&T, Ed Whitacre called me. And he started off, he said, “Cynt,” and he put the emphasis on the T, and he said, “Girl, let’s start this all over again. I heard what happened.” He went and described me to a T, and he said, “That is the person who we just promoted to be an officer. That is the person who we want to walk in the doors tomorrow. You don’t need to change a thing.” He said, “Will you accept the offer to be an officer of this corporation?” And I said, “Absolutely.”

It was funny because my husband was in the background hearing this whole thing, and when she was telling me to change my hair and all this he’s like, “I’ve got a barber. Don’t worry about it.” He’s in the background trying to make it happen. He’s like, “Whatever they are asking you to do you need to do it.” And at some point you have to draw a line.

You have to know who you are, what you stand for, and I just said no so he didn’t like that, but of course, it ended up being great, and it was the point in my career where words matter. When you are a leader words matter, and his words actually made me finally say, “I can be who I am. I can tell stories that normally I wouldn’t tell. I can open up and be exactly who I am,” and that actually has served me well since then.

Sankalp Banerjee: That’s an incredible story and so heartening to hear that you can maintain your authenticity while still achieving your career goals. Just truly inspirational.

Cynt Marshall: Well, you have to because – and this is how I am with my employees. The people who are delivering all those results, and the people who are making it happen, people deliver results. They don’t just happen so the people who are doing that, those are the people that you’re promoting, and those are the people who you want to continue to give to your organization so why try to change them?

And that’s what diversity is all about. You want all of those differences around the table. You’re not trying to create all these people who look alike, who are wearing white with short hair saying, “Lucky,” and I try to do that.

Sankalp Banerjee: So you’re able to stick to your conviction and your principles. You’re thriving in your career.

Cynt Marshall: Yes.

Sankalp Banerjee: You become president of AT&T in North Carolina. Then comes the day in 2010, I believe the day before New Year’s Eve, and you have a lot of detail in your book.


Cynt Marshall: Now you’re kind of scaring me, okay? You are kind of scaring me. Where are you getting all this from? Who are you talking to? Now see, now, I’m wondering, “What in the world? At some point he’s going to say something that I think nobody knows.”


Cynt Marshall: This is about to be really like a big revelation to the world.

Sankalp Banerjee: You’ve got an incredible book, and I had the opportunity to read it.

Cynt Marshall: Thank you for doing that. Thank you.

Sankalp Banerjee: It’s the day before New Year’s Eve. You receive a call from a doctor at this point.

Cynt Marshall: Yes.

Sankalp Banerjee: What’s your first reaction?

Cynt Marshall: Oh, I just couldn’t believe it. I was diagnosed with Stage 3 colon cancer. One lymph node before Stage 4. And it was actually as a result of being in a corporate athlete program in May of that year. It was an assessment of your physical, mental, emotional health. What I actually refer to as PMS. Physical, mental, spiritual health, and we need to pay attention to all of it all the time, but I wasn’t.

In this assessment they ask you to pick one thing that you would do that would help you have better results. Mine was the physical category because the mental category was great. Spiritual category was great. I had some work to do on physical. I didn’t think I had as much work to do as I thought because I had already stopped eating my fried chicken. I had already stopped eating my Ding Dongs. I just said I wanted to get healthy, right?

I was an athlete growing up. I ran track and all that and so, I just wanted to be healthy so I focused on that. The one thing that I picked that I would do is respond to a referral slip that had been given to me the previous year. My doctor had given me a referral slip to get a colonoscopy. I took that referral slip, and I put it on my nightstand. Honestly, I can admit I never planned on doing anything with it because I’m feeling pretty good. I’m healthy. At that time, I was 49. I said, “I don’t really need to do anything with this,” and so, I didn’t.

The one thing I committed to as a result of this class and this assessment because they’re all pressing us. It’s all the officers. They’re pressing us to do one thing, and I said, “Okay, I will go and get the colonoscopy. So I’ll take that referral slip off of my nightstand, and I’ll do that.” They gave us these accountability buddies so I had this one. Frank [Jewels], one of my buddies out of New Jersey, he had called me every morning and for some reason, he’d always catch me going through the Starbucks line.

He’s call and say, “Hey, girl, you get that thing done? You get that thing done?” And I said, “No, stop calling me. I haven’t yet.” Finally, finally I scheduled my colonoscopy, and I ended up having it the day before my 51st birthday so technically, I was in compliance. I was 50 years old. My last day of being 50, but I had the referral slip. I had received it quite a few months before then.

It came back basically saying, my doctor said, “Get to a surgeon.” I went to a surgeon. He told me I had this mass. He said it didn’t look like cancer so don’t worry about it. We were coming back home to California for the holidays. He said, “Don’t cancel your trip, but you know what? You have to follow your instincts, and nobody is going to advocate for your health the way you can.”

I told him, I said, “Well, just looking at this honestly, I feel like this tumor is growing by the second. I need surgery.” I sat in his office on a Friday afternoon, and I sat there for an hour and a half because he said he could not do surgery. It wasn’t urgent. This was just his professional opinion. He’s a fabulous surgeon, but in his professional opinion we could wait.

And I just said, “I don’t feel like I can wait.” He asked my husband, he says, “Is she going to leave here taking no for an answer?” He goes, my husband said, “Nuh-uh, no, you’re going to have to find somewhere to have surgery.” So they found somewhere that Monday morning. I ended up having surgery and before I left the hospital he actually said, “Don’t worry about the pathology report,” and I said, “Okay, when is it coming out?”

He finally ended up calling me, and I had to track him down for five days. He finally ended up calling me literally, the day before New Year’s Eve. He said, “Are you sitting down? I have news, it’s bad, and it’s significant.” I remember those words like it was yesterday. He told me that I had cancer, and that I didn’t have a day to spare, and that I needed to get to an oncologist. I just couldn’t believe it.

It was the only time in my life, and I’ve gone through a lot in terms of miscarriages, the death of my daughter, my husband was brain-damaged. I’ve gone through some things. This was an out of body experience. I really didn’t think he was talking to me. My husband came over, I cried and all that, but then I called my mother because that’s just what you do. I called my mother.

She’s here in the Bay Area, and I told her I had cancer, and she said, “Okay.” She said, “This is for His glory. God will get the glory out of this. You have a high-profile job. You’re not going to die. Everybody is going to be able to see that you’ve come through this. It’s going to be used for a positive story, and you will tell this story one day.”

I didn’t want to hear any of that because I was trying to have a pity party because I had just been told that I had cancer and the prognosis was not a good one, but she wouldn’t go there and pretty much told me that I had been chosen for this. I ended up going through chemotherapy. Everybody rallied around me. My family, my work family and did what we needed to do. It was brutal.

I named my chemo pump Winston from the movie “How Stella Got Her Groove Back,” and her boyfriend was Winston so I named my pump Winston because I’ve got to get my groove back. But I had a positive attitude and decided I would focus on the “can” in cancer. It was great because my work family from all across AT&T showed up for me. I was in North Carolina, but of course, had spent 25 years and grew up here. Just people everywhere showed up. My church family, my family.

It was an experience that really proved to me why my theme song in life is so important. My theme song in life is, “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.” You’re all kind of young, but have you all ever heard that song? Mine is the upbeat, Tammi Terrell, Marvin Gaye version. Except I like the Michael McDonald version, too because diversity and inclusion so I like the white man’s version, too, okay?

[Laughter, applause]

Cynt Marshall: So I like the black version, and I like the white version, okay? The Diana Ross version is kind of slow for me, but so that’s my theme song. “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” because of the words. It basically says, “Whatever it is you can call me, and we need to be there for each other.”

I sing it all the time because that’s the story of my life. We always show up for each other. There’s nothing we can’t accomplish. No mountain that’s too high for us, but this time in my life when I got cancer that’s when that song really became life to me. It really became life.

Sankalp Banerjee: You mentioned being chosen for this journey in that conversation with your mother.

Cynt Marshall: Yes.

Sankalp Banerjee: And perhaps because you were chosen you also felt a sense of responsibility towards others?

Cynt Marshall: Yes.

Sankalp Banerjee: I think that sense of responsibility really shines through in some letters that you wrote to your employees that’s in your book as well.

Cynt Marshall: Yes, yes.

Sankalp Banerjee: With your permission, I’d love to read a few lines from one of the letters.

Cynt Marshall: Oh, that would be wonderful. This is the best interview. You’re prepared. I love this. You are ready to do even bigger, bigger things in life. We’ll have to talk because I’m always hiring.

[Laughter, applause]

Cynt Marshall: And you are from Dallas.

Sankalp Banerjee: That’s right.

Cynt Marshall: They’d love to have you back home. The parents would love to have you back home, and you’re from Dallas. A lot of Dallas people need to come back home.


Sankalp Banerjee: We have some Texans in the audience.

Cynt Marshall: Hmm?

Sankalp Banerjee: We have some Texans in the audience.

Cynt Marshall: Stand up, Texans. Stand up, Texans.

[Applause, cheers]

Cynt Marshall: Yes, yes, yes. Everybody come back home. We need help.

Sankalp Banerjee: So you have this letter that you’re sending to all of your employees just one week after your cancer diagnosis. You say, “Some of you have probably heard by now that I was diagnosed last week with colon cancer. I will definitely beat this. I’m uniquely equipped for this battle.

“I have faith, good common sense, a detail-oriented skillset, aggressiveness, a great employer and health plan, wonderful family and friends, and that includes all of you. I will have just one more awesome testimony when this is all over, and my three teenagers and husband will have a lot more faith in God. Thanks in advance for your love, prayer and support. This will indeed be a Happy New Year.”

Cynt Marshall: Yes, indeed, and I’m cancer-free. Yes, indeed.

Sankalp Banerjee: Wow.

[Applause, cheers]

Cynt Marshall: Yes, indeed. Yes, yes.

Sankalp Banerjee: This just strikes me. Every time I read it this is so striking. What shines through is not only your incredible optimism, but also, your leadership at a very difficult time. Where do you get this optimism from, and how do you use it to inspire other people?

Cynt Marshall: I think it’s naturally in my spirit. I saw it with my mother. I saw her go through a lot, but always having hope and being optimistic. My sister would tell you, “It’s just who we are.” I think it’s rooted honestly, in scripture. I try to live my life by Jeremiah 29:11. It says, “For I know the plans I have for you. Plans to proper and not harm you. Plans to give you hope and a future.”

I just truly believe there is a wonderful, wonderful plan for my life. I believe there’s a wonderful plan for your life and that it’s all goodness and greatness that we need to focus on. And yes, we will have bad things happen. I often say, “Sometimes, the light at the end of the tunnel is a train.” Bad things do happen to good people. Sometimes, that light that you see is a train coming to roll you over, but I believe there’s always a hand that’s going to get you back up because sometimes, you can’t get back up by yourself.

So I just look for that hand to get up, and I look for that light that is coming at me like a train, but then I know there’s another one coming, and it’s usually attached to somebody who is going to help me. And then, I often think about, “I need to be that light for somebody. I need to be the one to make sure that they get up.”

I’m wired that way. I am just wired to think that the glass is not just half-full, but it is overflowing. My husband is wired just the opposite. He’s like, “The glass is half-empty.” I’m like, “Boy, please. The glass is half-full. In fact, it’s overflowing, and you’ve got to go and get it.” That has worked for me for 63 years, and I don’t think I’m going to change.

Sankalp Banerjee: I absolutely love that, and you applied these same principles to the workplace as well.

Cynt Marshall: Yes, yes.

Sankalp Banerjee: You were able to advance to the senior vice president level at AT&T. You’ve become Chief Diversity Officer. You’ve become an expert really in organizational culture.

Cynt Marshall: Yes.

Sankalp Banerjee: What makes you so passionate about culture, Cynt, and for all the future leaders in the audience how should we be thinking about building the right culture?

Cynt Marshall: It’s all about people. It is truly about people and culture is just very simple. I read something last night that basically said, “You know what kind of culture you have by how your employees are feeling on Sunday night when they think about getting ready to go back to work on Monday morning.” I literally just, just read that.

When I got to the Mavs it was a bad situation. When I got that call from Mark Cuban who I did not know, by the way, when he called me. My husband had to make me call him back. People laugh. I didn’t know him, he didn’t know me, but he had gotten my name. He had a situation where he needed to really change his organization. Somehow, I had built that reputation from working, from helping AT&T. Literally, I led the effort to get AT&T on the Fortune’s Great Place to Work list. 100 Best Places to Work list for the first time, ever.

It was about pulling people together, giving them a vision so that’s what I did at the Mavs. When I got there the first thing I did, I gave them a vision that said we would set the global standard for diversity, equity and inclusion. And I went there because I truly believe if you have an inclusive culture and a diverse group of employees you can get anything done. McKenzie gives the business case. Others give it as well. I’ve lived it. There’s a bottom line impact to having diversity, and having equity in your organization, and an inclusive culture.

And then, I laid out a set of values because culture, too is about having a foundation. Having a common set of values that embrace people and that give us a focus on where we want to go. How we want to do business, and our values at the Mavs spell CRAFTS. Character, respect, authenticity, fairness, teamwork and safety. Both physical and emotional safety.

And then, we laid out our 100-day plan and made it real clear that we are going to be a place of zero tolerance for inappropriate behavior, misconduct, false allegations and all of that. But we were going to have an express agenda for women because when I got to the Mavs there were zero women in permanent leadership positions and zero people of color. I don’t know how you run an organization like that, and you don’t tap into the richness of the diversity that’s there. So within 90 days we were 50 percent women around my table and 50 percent people of color.

Sankalp Banerjee: Wow.

Cynt Marshall: I’m like, “Let’s just go ahead and get this thing laid out so we can be successful, but I want to drive a message around an inclusive culture.” It’s all about making sure that every voice matters and everybody belongs. That is our workplace promise. Araceli is down there. She’s on our team. Stand, Araceli. She’s absolutely amazing.


Cynt Marshall: We work together. We work together to make sure that we deliver on that leadership promise of every voice matters and everybody belongs, but the tone is set at the top. You can’t ask all your employee resource groups and your people at the lower levels to literally set that tone.

You have to set the tone, and then everybody embraces that, and then we’re all responsible for the culture of the organization, but you have to make it real clear, and you have to demonstrate it. You have to role-model it, and that’s what I try to do. I don’t get it perfect every day, but that’s what I try to do.

Sankalp Banerjee: You were brought into the Mavs to really drive change?

Cynt Marshall: Yes.

Sankalp Banerjee: But change often comes with resistance.

Cynt Marshall: Yes.

Sankalp Banerjee: Tell us about some of the challenges you faced when you were trying to drive change as a new CEO.

Cynt Marshall: Well, we laid out this 100-day plan, and the 100-day plan had 200 initiatives. We wanted everybody to rally around them. Obviously, I knew I would have to make some leadership changes, diversify the team, exit some people who had engaged in misconduct or just didn’t fit anymore, et cetera so I thought I had done all that. And then, all of a sudden I realized there was one group in particular, they weren’t responding to our initiatives. They weren’t in on the meetings. Everybody was fired up about the things we needed to do.

Then they ended up telling me that their boss had told them not to engage, not to listen to me, that I was just a PR stunt, and I would be gone in 90 days. I will be five years at the end of this month, and he was gone in 90 days because you can’t have people around that absolutely are fighting against the culture.

Now, it’s one thing, you’ve got to bring people along and sometimes, they come along slowly. But when you have somebody who is totally resistant and who thinks bad behavior is okay, and then they want to keep people down so their people can’t flourish you’re doing a disservice to everybody else.

Now, when I have to let somebody go that is the hardest thing because you’re thinking about their livelihood if they have kids and all that, but in my 42 years now of being a professional I have never fired anyone. They opt out. They decide that they don’t want to work in a certain place. They decide that they don’t want the culture.

We had some people who made a decision that they didn’t want it and for the sake of everybody else there – you’re talking about loving the people I have to ask myself, “Do I love them enough to put them out of their misery?” Because they want to engage, but they’ve got to respond to this guy and so, we had to let him go.

We had a few items like that, but for the most part, we had people who wanted to come along. They wanted to work in a whole different kind of environment and so, that’s what we’re doing so it’s been good.

Sankalp Banerjee: That’s incredible and your ability to bring people along while also setting the vision really stands out. Cynt, you’ve had an incredible career. You’ve been able to drive impact in so many different roles.

Cynt Marshall: Yes.

Sankalp Banerjee: What’s one thing you really want to be remembered for?

Cynt Marshall: I often tell my kids when we go to a funeral or something I tell them, “I only want one thing written about me and said about me when I leave,” and I plan on being here until I’m 102 because I said, “I got cancer at 51 so that was my midlife crisis,” so I plan on being here until 102, but when I’m 102, and I’m laid out I want them to write, “She left it better than she found it.”

That’s all I want to do is walk into a place and know that there are people who literally, their lives have changed. That they are better because they met me. That they are better because I did something in their life. I actually got a letter from an employee at our American Airlines Center the other day, and it actually caught me off guard. I got this and I’m thinking, “Okay, I don’t know if this is a complaint. I don’t know what this is,” and I’m actually walking through my house after our game went off television.

I had to just stand there and catch myself for about 10 minutes because this woman had read my book. And she goes through a full page of all these horrible things. Horrible things that had gone on in her life and how she had given up. And then, she said, “I read your book and that day my life changed. I’m going to live,” and then she starts describing all this great stuff that’s happening, and her mindset had changed.

She said, “I want you to know it’s because I read your book. You literally, just saved my life.” I said, “Wow, I wrote the book to touch one person. That was the person.” That’s all I want to do is just leave it better. I don’t care about being famous and all that. I’m kind of famous now, but I don’t really care about all that.

Araceli will tell you even when I get requests, and it was said earlier I could probably do this every day, but I try to pick the things that truly would have impact. That’s why this invitation was so special to me. To be able to come in to the Stanford Graduate School of Business where actually, when I was a recruiter at AT&T this was one of my schools.

Sankalp Banerjee: Oh, okay.

Cynt Marshall: It was my top school that I’d come and recruit at. And to be able to touch the lives of people who are already accomplished, but who are here so you can learn even more. So you can make an even bigger difference in the world. To be able to just say something whether it’s the three Ls or just something to help you on your journey. That’s why I said yes to this. That’s all I want to do is leave it better than I found it.

Sankalp Banerjee: Well, we’re delighted you accepted. Your leadership, authenticity and just optimism really, really, really shines through for all of us.

Cynt Marshall: Thank you.

Sankalp Banerjee: Shall we take a few questions from the audience?

Cynt Marshall: I would love that. You all got questions for me? I would love that.

Sankalp Banerjee: Maybe we have one question over here.

Kareem: Hi, Cynt, thank you for being here. My name is Kareem, and I’m a second-year MBA student.

Cynt Marshall: Awesome.

Kareem: Thanks.

Cynt Marshall: Thank you, that’s awesome. You’re about to get out of here, huh?

Kareem: It gets better. I’m a huge Mavs fan.

Cynt Marshall: Go, Mavs.

Kareem: Go, Mavs. I played basketball professionally before business school. Tried to development a fade-away shot like Dirk’s. Never really managed to do that. He’s really good. My question for you is also about people. I truly admire what you did for the organization.

Cynt Marshall: Thank you.

Kareem: And hope that you can lead us to a championship soon.

Cynt Marshall: Yes.

Kareem: I’m just very curious to hear about your approach building consensus. Especially when you’ve worked in a space where you have to deal with very special, unique and strong personalities.

Cynt Marshall: Oh, I love that. I love that question. Thank you, and thank you for –

Kareem: Thank you.

Cynt Marshall: – your loyalty to the Mavs. You know, we’re in Sacramento tonight, and tomorrow night so if you want to come you just let me know. I’ve got connections.

[Cheers, applause]

Cynt Marshall: I’ve got it like that, yes, yes, yes, yes. What I try to do, the way I try to build consensus is to first of all, you need clarity. You need true clarity around, “What is the problem? What’s the issue you’re trying to solve?” So often, the things are muddy. You’re talking about one thing, I’m talking about something else. You’re talking about something else so I like to get my team in a room and say, “Okay, what is the issue? Where are we trying to go? What are we truly trying to solve, and why are we trying to solve this?”

I’m a big why person. I will ask why 10 times. “Why are we trying to solve this?” Because sometimes, you’re addressing something that actually doesn’t even matter, and we don’t have time for that. We have to set priorities. We’re not going to be fighting over something that doesn’t even matter or something we shouldn’t even be talking about. So once we get through all that and realize it is important, and we have real clear direction on where we’re trying to get to then I get everybody’s opinion.

I’m not one of these people where I’m about just the group-talk or the loudest voice. I literally, my team will tell you or Araceli will tell you I go around the table because I notice who’s quiet and so, I’ll go around the table. “Okay, so let me hear from you. Let me hear from you. Let me hear from you, and if you say, ‘Oh, Cynt, I didn’t really have an opinion,’ yes, you do. You work here. Everybody has an opinion. I don’t want you to take it home. I don’t want you to give it to anybody else. I need you to give it to us.”

We’ll go around, and it’s not even about process of elimination. It’s not about majority rules. And then, we balance everything up. We’ll have some solutions, and then we balance them up against our values. Every decision we make we balance it up against CRAFTS. What does it mean from a character standpoint? Does it respect the people involved? Does it allow them to be themselves? Is it fair? Equality and equity fairness is not sameness. Sameness is equality. Fairness is about equity. Are we meeting people where they are?

So we take them through that whole thing, teamwork [sessions]. We do all that, and then we make a decision. What’s best for the organization. Not for any particular individual. What is best for the organization. Sometimes, I lose. I’ll lose or I will have an aha moment, and when I have my aha moment I make sure my team members know that. I said, “Okay, well, it sounds like [set] was wrong on that one.”

I’ll go to whoever put the issue out there that gave me the aha moment and I’ll say, “Thanks for sharing that because I didn’t see it that way. I really thought whatever, whatever, whatever.” And then, other people will start to do the same. So then while everybody is still talking about it because you are taught not to talk past the sale. When you’re trying to build consensus sometimes, you do need to keep talking because you need to get buy-in. People need to understand how you got there.

I have a rule especially in my leadership team we all walk out. We walk out together. You don’t walk out and say, “Well, I still don’t buy-in.” No, you’re part of this leadership team. We talked it out, and we think we made the best decision for the organization. That’s how we drive consensus. A lot of why, and we test it against our values, and we talk about it even when we’ve decided to make sure we get ownership. Does that help?

I will tell you how I got to be – and it’s very quick – the Chief Diversity Officer at AT&T. I ran businesses. AT&T, North Carolina. When I was here I ran businesses for AT&T. I worked in technical and non-technical spaces, line and staff so I was blessed to have 15 different jobs, 13,088 days. I’m a numbers person so I know exactly how long I was there so I’ve worked all over the place.

My very last job in the company was the Senior Vice President of human resources when our chairman asked me to move from North Carolina to Dallas because we had had all these mergers and so, then we had all these subcultures, and he was on a mission to create a great place to work and bring all these subcultures together into one culture. He asked me to be a part of that, and there were about a few of us around the county that he brought to Dallas.

I came there with no experience, so to speak, around diversity, equity and inclusion, but to your point I actually did have a lot of experience because my whole career I had been a champion just because, I think, a lot of who I am and just what I really care about. The company actually recognized that. When I got in the SVPHR job there was a chief diversity officer who sat right in the suite next to me in her office.

When she moved on to another job, and they were looking for a replacement they came to me and basically said, “We need you to do two jobs,” and I said, “What?” And then, they explained to me why they wanted me to be the chief diversity officer. They had to pay a sister. “You want me to do two jobs? You’ve got to pay me now.” It worked out. It turned out to be great because there were so many synergies in all the HR stuff and all the diversity, equity and inclusion. It’s different work. It’s different work, but it actually turned out to be great for the company.

Now, when I saw what I was able to deliver for the company – and when I say, “I,” my team, not me, it’s always a team – I saw where we truly added value so I would say to embrace it. Embrace the unique perspective that you bring. We bring something very different. No offense to anybody else in here, but as women of color we bring something very different, unique and special, and something that is needed to the workplace. We have a lens like no other. You need to embrace that, make them pay you for what you’re bringing.

Make them pay you because it’s not free, but embrace that. You have a set of eyes that are needed. You have a set of eyes that are needed in this world. I was telling our new players. If you’ve been watching the trade we got some new players the other day. And one of the first things I said is, “I need those young men to come up to my office as soon as they get off the plane.”

So we were having a good conversation, and one thing I said is that, “I am unapologetically” – and I say it to everybody, I am unapologetically a black woman. I bring a very different perspective.” I remember the days when I first started working it was seen as some kind of threat that I was young, gifted and black, and it’s not a threat. It is a blessing.

You being a woman of color is a blessing. Embrace it. Not everybody will embrace it, but those people eventually move out of the way because more people will realize how valuable your perspective is. And if you’re in a place where they don’t want to accept that then you have to rethink where you are. You bring something very unique. Own it, sister. Own it.

Sankalp Banerjee: Well, thank you for sharing your perspective with us today.

Cynt Marshall: Thank you.

Sankalp Banerjee: It’s been a true honor, Cynt Marshall.

Cynt Marshall: Thank you.

Sankalp Banerjee: Thank you very much for your time.

Cynt Marshall: Oh, you’re amazing, thank you. Thank you, you’re amazing, thank you.

Sankalp Banarjee: You’ve been listening to View From The Top, the podcast, a production of Stanford Graduate School of Business. This interview was conducted by me, Sankalp Banerjee of the MBA Class of 2023. Lily Sloane composed our theme music and Jenny Luna and Michael Reilly produced this episode. You can find more episodes of this podcast at our website gsb.stanford.edu/. Follow us on social media @stanfordgsb.

For media inquiries, visit the Newsroom.

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