Interview: Mark Tatum

Interview with Mark Tatum by Ziad Ahmed

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Flickr Image of Mark Tatum (labeled for noncommerical reuse)

On October 6th, 2015 I had the honor of interviewing Mark Tatum.

Mark Tatum is the National Basketball Association (NBA) Deputy Commissioner and Chief Operating Officer. Mr. Tatum has many responsibilities and works across several departments at the NBA, including business operations, Global Marketing Partnerships, Global Operations and Merchandising, and Team Marketing and Business Operations departments.

He also oversees the WNBA (Women’s National Basketball Association). Mr. Tatum has an extremely impressive history based on his work with the NBA as well as his previous work at other major corporations in America such as MLB, The Clorox Company, PepsiCo, and Procter and Gamble. He is a graduate of Cornell University and Harvard Business School. This past summer, I had the opportunity to hear from Mr. Tatum as a part of my Business World Course at Cornell Summer College. Greatly inspired by his talk, I emailed him afterwards, and he graciously accepted my interview request. I have benefited profoundly from his words, and I am confident that you all will too. Mr. Tatum is involved with many different organizations/associations, but his involvement within my school’s board (the Princeton Day School Board) and the Executive Leadership Council particularly sparked my interest in his work. His remarkable accomplishments as a Vietnamese African-American are profoundly inspiring especially as he is the highest ranking executive of color in any sports league. Mr. Tatum is an extremely successful executive that somehow finds the time to engage in so much positive work, and I am proud to call him a role model of mine.

The interview can be found below:

1. You have been instrumental in communication decisions within the NBA and have also been involved in diversity work through your supervision of the WNBA, membership in the Executive Leadership Council, and trusteeship at Princeton Day School. As a Princeton Day School student, I am a curious to know how you think PDS as a community can better communicate, market, and govern itself in order to be a place that fosters diversity?

I know – for a fact having been a board member at PDS for the last several years and through working with Paul Stellato and other members – that diversity is at the top of the list of priorities at the school. The school understands that a diverse environment is one that fosters innovation, performance, and a better operating organization/culture.

Creating a community that fosters diversity starts with the leadership. The leadership has to embrace and celebrity diversity. Then, there has to be an environment where there is continual conversation about what it means to be a diverse and inclusive environment. Questions like, “why is it it important as an institution to foster diversity?” have to be asked. I think that PDS is doing those things, and it is at the top of the agenda and a part of every conversation that we have.

2. As a person of color who is an executive at one of the most visible companies in the world, how do you think your ethnicity has played a role in your success, if at all?

This goes back to the last question. The more diversity there is,the more inclusion you have in an organization, the better your organization is going to be. Over the course of my career, I have been fortunate to work at many places. I’ve been at the NBA for the last sixteen years, and my point of view has been consistently valued. We are a diverse organization that has many different points of view, and we know that makes us better. We have many diverse points of views – across different regions, genders, ethnicities and more – within our organization. When operating a global sport, all those points of view matter to us as we make important decisions. That is what it is all about; it is about bringing fresh perspectives and bringing many different perspectives to the table, and those going into making key decisions.

3. The world saw the racism that exists after Donald Sterling’s disgusting comments last year, and we continue to be disheartened by racism throughout sports internationally. The NBA, FIFA, and etc. have taken steps to combat racism, but how can teenagers play a role in defeating the unfortunate racism that exists in sports?

I think we first have to recognize that sports are not the only place where racism exists. I will say though that sports are a place where we can break down barriers, especially in regards to race. Historically this is absolutely true; we have many different stories of athletes breaking barriers in sports. Teammates supporting one another has been huge as it relates to breaking down racial barriers.

Teenagers can learn from one another, and they should continue to have open and honest dialogues about issues regarding race. Teenagers should seek to understand the experience of others. Adolescence is a critical age, and it is important to make sure at that age to call out things that are not respectful or inclusive. Close-mindedness should be challenged.

4. As a teenager, I often hear jokes about women’s sports. How do you think society can change to view women’s sports in the respectful, dignified, and admirable way that society should?

I think that society’s view is changing. When you think about this summer, you see that it is already changing. You see that when you look at the US Women’s Soccer Team and the impact of that team not just amongst women but also in men and boys. You see that when you look at the exceptional successes of Serena Williams.

We are in the midst of the WNBA finals, and players like Maya Moore and Tamika Catchings are being recognized as multifaceted, exceptional athletes that are contributing to health, wellness, and positively to many facets of society.

It is all already changing. The 20th WNBA anniversary is coming up, women’s sports are growing, and we will see that women’s sports will continue to evolve and be embraced.

5. Redefy is an organization that seeks to defy stereotypes through sharing stories that shatter the detrimental stereotypes that permeate through our lives. Are there any stories that you can share from your experiences in the NBA that reflect counter stereotypes?

When I think about shattering or defying stereotypes, I think about moments where people are able to break through barriers. You can just look at some of the examples in the NBA alone or in many other organizations. Becky Hammon of the San Antonio Spurs was the first female assistant coach for any professional male league. She just led the Spurs to a Summer League championship. The NBA also had the first female professional referees, Violent Palmer and Dee Kantner. On the business side, you have women who are CEOs of NBA Teams. We had four CEO/Presidents last year of NBA teams, which was the highest number of female CEO/Presidents of any league. We have so many stories of women, people of color, and others breaking barriers and achieving a level of experience that helps redefine what peoples role in society ought to be.

6. As an executive at a company that is trying to engage a global audience, what advice can you offer people that hope to be sensitive to and respectful of other cultures?

That’s a great question. Our games are broadcasted in 215 countries, 47 languages, and our game is truly global. What we find is that it is really important to have an open dialogue with the people in those markets and have transparent conversations with them. We learn from our audience. We have a mechanism to hear what is important to them, what resonates with them, and what they are sensitive to. You have to also have people on the ground. I am about to go to China and Brazil, and we are going to bring the game to the market. We recently brought our first game to Africa. We have to have people on the ground to better understand what is important to these different cultures and be able to meet those needs by listening to our different audiences.

7. I am very interested in your involvement in the Executive Leadership Council, and I was wondering if you could tell me a bit about your role in the organization, and about what the Executive Leadership Council does?

So, the ELC is a group that I have been a part of for the last two years. It is the preeminent organization for the development of global black leaders. The mission of the ELC is to increase the number of black executive in the US and abroad.

We do that through training, development, and mentorship opportunities for senior level executives. It gives you the chance to meet and discuss with other people of color about challenges/obstacles they face within their organizations, so that you don’t have to make those same mistakes. There is a real nurturing aspect to the organization that fosters community as we are a collaboration of successful black executives who are looking to help each other be better.

8. Teenagers often struggle with time management and prioritizing. How do you balance your extremely busy work schedule with finding time to remain involved with your family, philanthropic efforts, the Executive Leadership Council, PDS, and many other important groups?

I just don’t sleep. It’s hard and a tough question. There is no silver bullet answer, but I do get that question all the time. You just have to prioritize; even as teenagers you have to ask, what are the things I have to do? What are the things that are important to do? Then, you have to carve out your day and find the time for those things. There are things that I am passionate about, and I place those things that I care about in the priority order as I plan my week or day. I have to prioritize things that I want to get done. I wish I had more time to get things done, but at the end of the day, each individual has to decide what is important to them and what they can actually get done. Make sure you’re okay with what can get done and, perhaps more importantly, what can’t get done.

9. What advice can you give to students of color who feel like they can never make it big in Corporate America because of people’s perception of their race?

My advice would be to look around, and don’t accept that you can never make it big in Corporate America. Look at the CEO of American Express, Kenneth Chenault, or others. There are several role models of people of color that have become leaders that have broken barriers through their excellence. They were determined to get more and more responsibilities.

It comes down to dedicating yourself to being the best that you can be. Be in a place that values your contribution to the organization and then there is no limit to what you can achieve in Corporate America or anywhere else. We have a black president, Barack Obama, and he didn’t let anything, whether it be the perception of race or anything, get in his way to getting to the highest position of the land.

Students of color, from Pre-K to college, should look around to see the examples of people who have broken barriers and achieved greatness and recognize that there is no reason that they cannot either.

10. What advice can you give to teenagers who have big dreams, but have been made to feel like they aren’t good enough?

I’d say continue to dream big, and be excellent at what you do. If you are able to do that, and again find yourself an organization or a passion that values you, you can achieve those dreams. I had a dream of growing up to play for the Yankees, and then I realized while playing College Baseball that I had to change my dream, but then my dream became to work in Sports Marketing.

I put a lot of time, energy, and effort to figure out how to go about doing that. It wasn’t easy, and I had to make some sacrifices and work really hard to pursue that dream, but I have my dream job now.

My advice to teenagers is to work hard, excel, and you will achieve your dreams.