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Global Perspectives: Cynthia Marshall on diversity and inclusion and cultural change in organizations

Mark A. Wynne

Cynthia “Cynt” Marshall has served as Dallas Mavericks chief executive officer since 2018. When she was hired, she envisioned the Mavericks organization setting the National Basketball Association (NBA) standard regarding diversity and inclusion. She arrived after the team’s operations faced national media scrutiny for a toxic work environment.

Before joining the Mavericks, Marshall founded Marshalling Resources, a consulting firm specializing in leadership, diversity and inclusion, culture transformation and overall optimization of people resources.

Over the course of a 36-year career at AT&T, her dedication to diversity and inclusion earned that company a spot in the top three on DiversityInc’s 2017 Top 50 companies. She also spearheaded the work that landed AT&T on the Fortune 100 Best Companies to Work For list in 2017.

Marshall received the 2020 Girl Scouts of America Lifetime Achievement Award and was honored with the Women of Power Legacy Award by Black Enterprise in 2019. She is the recipient of the National ATHENA Leadership Program Award and was named one of Adweek's 30 Most Powerful Women in Sports. She has chaired a variety of nonprofit boards and is on the board of Dallas CASA, the Dallas Regional Chamber, Texas Women's Foundation and Texas 2036. She's also on the boards of BGSF Staffing and Blinktbi Inc. She holds degrees in business administration and human resources management from the University of California Berkeley and has four honorary doctorate degrees.

The Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas recently hosted Marshall as part of the Bank’s Global Perspectives speaker series. This series was launched at the beginning of 2016 with the objective of bringing leaders from the worlds of business, academia and policymaking to the Dallas Fed to share their insights on leadership, and global, national and regional developments.

Marshall and Dallas Fed President Rob Kaplan discussed her career, the importance of diversity and inclusion and cultural change in organizations. The following are excerpts from their conversation, edited for clarity, and presented by topic.

On getting started:

Marshall: I had 13 job offers coming out of college, and I had two criteria. I wanted the job that would pay me the most money because I wanted to help my mom get out of the public housing projects. I wanted to contribute financially even though she didn't need the help; she had, I think, three or four jobs. And I wanted a job that would allow me to be a supervisor walking in the door at 21 years old. AT&T had a great fast-track management leadership development program that I actually was hired into.

I started out supervising long-distance operators. Some people don't remember this, but back in the day, you could dial 0 and get help making calls. I started out working the night shift supervising about 30 short-evening operators. It was a great experience. I got a chance to work with the union. I still believe that that's the job that taught me just about everything I know about leading people. It was a great opportunity. In my 13,088 days that I was there, I had 14 different jobs and got a chance to lead some very big public policy initiatives for the company and some very big technical organizations.

When we bought BellSouth and Cingular [Wireless]—I believe it was December of 2006—I got a call and was asked to move my family to North Carolina to lead our North Carolina operation of AT&T. I did that for 6 1/2 years. Then I got the next call to come to corporate, because we had had about nine or 10 mergers at the time, a lot of different subcultures and our chairman, Randall Stephenson, was very focused on culture and very focused on creating a great place to work. So, a few of us around the country got a call asking us to move to Dallas, and that's what I did in 2013.

On the role of a chief diversity officer:

It was a great role for me because I started out as the senior vice president of HR [human resources], so I had a lot of the talent management responsibilities. When the chief diversity officer role was added to it, the synergies worked out great, because if you think about diversity, it's not just about the talent pipeline, but it's about establishing a culture, a culture of diversity, equity and inclusion. It's really focused on the talent pipeline, on your supply chain. It's focused on where your philanthropic dollars are going. How do you spend your time? Where are you recruiting?

It really starts with getting people to buy into the business case, getting people to buy into the fact that this is just not a good thing to do, to focus on diversity. But there is a real bottom-line dividend, if you will. It's called the diversity dividend. There's a business case. You can win the war for talent, you improve the quality of your decision-making, you gain more customer insight. Your employees are more motivated when they feel a sense of belonging. It really helps you with your global brand. There's a true dollars-and-cents impact to focusing on it. We focused on all aspects of it—employees, customers, suppliers, community—all of it.

On entrenched barriers to opportunity:

I'll give you one example. Almost a year ago to the day, we were shut down [by COVID-19]. We all went to working from home, and kids were at home trying to avail themselves of virtual learning. There is something called the digital divide that is real, where not all neighborhoods have the kind of technology and infrastructure that they need in order to really thrive in a virtual environment. Those are just some barriers that exist where some kids are learning and they're not falling behind, and then there are some kids in certain neighborhoods that can't learn because they don't have the infrastructure.

So, we tried to give out hot spots and all that. But wouldn't it be great if we just had an overarching plan to address these infrastructure issues? It's things like that. It's things like just generational wealth and money that people don't have [with which] to send their kids to college. There are barriers around just overall equity in education—where [it affects] some of our kids just because of where they live and because of the lack of property taxes that are being paid. They just don't have money in the schools, meaning they don't have the kind of resources that they need. Those are just systemic kind of issues around equity that I think are fiercely urgent that we need to address.

On changing the Mavericks’ organizational culture:

I think transparency had a lot to do with it. And we all know that as leaders, trust and transparency go a long way. We took our 100-day plan and we put it on some really, really big poster boards and we posted them throughout the office so that everybody could see what we were focused on. Then as a team, as a large team, we'd get together and have a huddle and we would check the items off, meaning we all had to agree that we had addressed that item and all the sub-items underneath it.

We were very transparent about what we were doing; we were very transparent about the moves. Whenever somebody moved out, I'd huddle and without exposing anything from an employee privacy standpoint, I would just talk about the changes that were being made, who was going to go in behind them or if the job was open, how we would fill that job. We opened up a lot of processes. People actually saw that we were doing things.

We would update the 100-day plan so they could really see things were happening. One of the ways you lose employees is if you say, we have a “speak-up culture and we want to hear things.” And then they tell you, and when you don't respond, people will stop talking. We did not want people to stop talking, which is also why we publicly would check the items off. We just basically said, “We're all in here together.”

We even had a big ceremony where we all kind of walked out of the office. When we checked out that last item and came back, we had our values up on the wall, our new mission statement, all that. Everybody put their hand in some paint—our employees came up with this idea, I didn't—and put our handprints up on the wall basically saying, “This is our new place. It's a great place to work.”

Our new employee promise is if you work at the Dallas Mavericks, it is a place where every voice matters, and everybody belongs, and we're trying to live up to it.

About the Author

Mark A. Wynne

Wynne is vice president and associate director of research in the Research Department at the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas.

The views expressed are those of the author and should not be attributed to the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas or the Federal Reserve System.

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