How Cynthia Marshall Transformed the Dallas Mavericks’ Toxic Culture in 100 Days

September 25, 2019

Less than a year into her retirement from being the SVP of HR at AT&T, Cynthia Marshall’s phone began to ring. Her husband held out the phone and told her it was Mark Cuban asking for her. 

“Who’s that?” Cynthia recalls asking.

If you’re wondering the same question, Mark Cuban is the owner of the NBA team the Dallas Mavericks (though you might also know him from Shark Tank). When Mark called Cynthia, the Mavs had just undergone a highly publicized scandal involving allegations of sexual harassment and a toxic workplace culture. He hoped that Cynthia, an expert in diversity and inclusion, could turn things around.

As the Mavs’ new CEO, Cynthia got to work at once, outlining a 100-day plan before she even started the role. The Mavs completed that plan in August — setting a new standard for NBA teams in the process. And at LinkedIn Talent Connect this year, Cynthia outlined just a few of the steps she took to make this possible.

Here are the four priorities Cynthia focused on — and how they’ve inspired other teams in the NBA to follow her lead. 

1. Modeling a zero-tolerance policy: Cynthia implemented a new code of conduct and mandatory training to make good behavior stick

The Sports Illustrated article that broke the Mavericks’ scandal detailed numerous serious instances of sexual harassment and inappropriate behavior at the organization. These ranged from uncomfortable remarks to a C-level executive  inappropriately touching a female coworker in public. The result was a culture in which women felt unsafe at work — prompting many to walk out the door. 

To curb this kind of behavior, Cynthia hired a new chief ethics and compliance officer and instituted a zero-tolerance policy at the Mavericks. Today, any proven incident involving sexual harassment results in termination. Employees have access to a hotline that they can call to report inappropriate behavior, both to themselves and to others. 

Zero-tolerance policies do have the potential to backfire, making some employees less likely to report harassment for fear of costing someone their job. To ensure everyone is crystal clear on what’s acceptable and what isn’t, Cynthia also created a new code of conduct for the organization and mandated Respect in the Workplace training for all employees. That way, everyone knows where they stand, meaning there can be no excuses. 

2. Creating a women’s playbook: Cynthia focused on making sure women felt represented and respected at the Mavericks

When Cynthia arrived at the Mavericks, the leadership team was composed entirely of white men. Today, 50% of the Mavs’ leaders are women, and 47% are people of color. 

Simply hiring more women wasn’t enough, though. The previous culture had left female employees wary, with many quietly passing on warnings about serial harassers to keep their coworkers safe. 

To combat this, Cynthia created the Mavs Women’s Playbook. The playbook is designed to empower, uplift, and ultimately retain female employees by providing mentorship opportunities and ensuring they feel respected and supported. 

Since Cynthia took over, the organization also has four new employee resource groups (ERGs), including the Women of the Mavs Empowering Network (WOMEN). Cynthia says that men also attend these ERG meetings, which have included sessions on topics like purpose. 

3. Transforming the culture: Cynthia established six core values for the organization and ensures everyone lives by them

Changing a toxic culture doesn’t happen overnight. To achieve it in 100 days, Cynthia outlined six core values that Mavs employees can live by. These are Character, Respect, Authenticity, Fairness, Teamwork, and Safety, or CRAFTS for short. 

Cynthia says every decision the leadership team makes is guided by these values. This visible commitment helps ensure the values are felt in the halls, rather than just being written on the walls. 

To keep tabs on the cultural transformation, Cynthia also established an inclusion council. This council is responsible for things like evaluating the effectiveness of the Mavs’ ERGs and determining whether more or less are needed. The Mavs also plan to use regular surveys to take a temperature reading on the organization. 

4. Ensuring operational effectiveness: Cynthia set out to close the Mavs’ gender pay gap and hired execs focused on ethics and diversity

For Cynthia, tackling operational effectiveness was the most exciting challenge yet. One key aspect of this was addressing pay equality

When Cynthia first arrived at the Mavs, women were not always earning the same amount as men for equal work. To help her team grasp the importance of closing these gaps, she showed them a video created by the Australia and New Zealand Banking Group (ANZ) in which children are asked to do chores only for the boys to get paid more. The kids’ shocked reactions serve as a reminder that just because something’s common, that doesn’t mean it’s right. 

This wasn’t the only operational change that Cynthia’s made. She’s also created some brand new leadership positions, including hiring a vice president of diversity and inclusion and a chief compliance officer, and rolled out a new employee handbook and performance review process. 

Lead with intention, insight, inclusion, and inspiration — and the rest will follow

Almost two years after the Sports Illustrated story broke, the Mavericks’ culture looks a lot different than it once did. As perhaps the greatest indicator of Cynthia’s success, most NBA teams have reevaluated their own cultures, too. 

Looking back, Cynthia says she managed to achieve her 100-day plan because she led with intention, insight, inclusion, and inspiration. 

“I call it going all in,” she says.

Watch Cynthia's full talk below:

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