Billionaire Mark Cuban called Cynthia “Cynt” Marshall in early 2018 to ask if she would be the CEO of his disgraced basketball franchise, the Dallas Mavericks, after a months-long Sport Illustrated investigation revealed a workplace culture rampant with sexual harassment perpetrated from the top down. She ignored his phone call. Twice.
“I actually thought it was one of my kids asking me for money,” Marshall joked with Fortune’s Maria Aspan in a live interview at Fortune’s Most Powerful Women Summit.
Marshall is the first Black woman to hold the position of CEO in the history of the NBA. Prior to her unexpected foray into sports, she was the chief diversity officer at AT&T.
She was brought in to overhaul the Mavericks’ culture, which was rife with misconduct and short on accountability. Some of the allegations included instances of sexual harassment by its then-CEO Terdema Ussery, stretching as far back as 1998, enabled by an HR department that willingly turned a blind eye. An independent investigation would later reveal the team had even paid for a lawyer to represent an employee who had been arrested for domestic violence.
Marshall says she only met with Cuban at the urging of her husband, having already made up her mind to reject the job offer.
“I said I am not going to work in this culture,” she said. “What woman in her right mind wants to work here? …I kind of don’t want to be associated with this. I’m not going to do it.”
Marshall was convinced to take the job when, after leaving the meeting, two women stopped and asked her “are you the person who Mark [Cuban] said is going to come and save us?” she recounted. Still, she demurred. Ultimately, relenting when “one of them said the magic words, she said ‘we think you could really come and impact the situation.’”
In a stroke of coincidence, “Impact” was the title of a blog post she had published that very morning, Marshall says. She realized her own qualifications as a leader and diversity executive made her uniquely suited for the role. “I thought you know what, I got to do this for the sisterhood,” she said. “Now the brotherhood will benefit, but I got to do this for the sisterhood.”
What was even more apparent, other than the appalling nature of the incidents themselves, was the Mavericks’ culture of cover-ups and tolerance which allowed them to continue for decades. Marshall realized her overhaul of the organization had to address both the near-term implications of the ongoing internal investigation and the long-term need of preventing future misconduct. She implemented a 100-day plan that featured four key pillars: “modeling zero tolerance,” an expressed agenda to “educate empower and elevate” women, transforming the culture, and, what she termed, basic operational excellence, such as gender pay equity and market-based compensation for the organization’s top performers.
“We laid out our plan,” Marshall explained. “We executed on it, and we were bold about it. We were very intentional. I call it all in leadership: being intentional, inclusive, insightful and inspirational.”
In the four years since her appointment, Marshall’s plan has proven equally effective as it was comprehensive. The Dallas Mavericks have won the NBA’s Inclusion Leadership Award for the past two years. In yet another testament to her effective leadership, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver was so impressed with Marshall’s work, that in a December 2018 email to the league’s 30 owners he recommended all teams follow her plan.
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