When it comes to women in banking, the number in leadership roles is a classic example of quality over quantity. Women in top-tier positions may still be a rare occurrence, but the few who get there are certainly exceptional. Among this elite group is Carole Smith who spearheads business development for Simmons Bank’s Central Arkansas Metro region as senior vice president.
Smith’s leadership position is one she doesn’t take for granted.
“As most people know, banking has been a man’s world,” she acknowledged. “But I think women have made a huge impact in our industry. We deal with issues a little differently, oftentimes, than men. What I find, especially with direct customer contact, is that customers like the difference.”
She also believes that women tend to have more collaborative personalities. They tend to be less task-oriented and more relationship-focused, a trait customers respond to. “Hats off to all the women out there in this business who have managed to work their way through a sort of man’s world and been successful at it,” she said.
Smith’s role — director of business development — is a strategic one. She ensures bankers have the plans and tools in place to grow the business organically. She also maximizes the Simmons brand and controls all charitable activity.
A typical day might include working with commercial bankers on customer- and prospect-call planning. She might meet with her business development team to plan community involvement activities, review charitable-giving budgets and requests or brainstorm ways to maximize community involvement.
She might meet with one of her former customers to help transition the customer to a new manager in her group. Or, she might meet with other departments in the bank — wealth, investments, etc. — to discuss referring customers to each other.
Smith might not have a “typical day,” but one thing that’s constant is, you’ll almost always find her working in a group.
“My philosophy in managing a team is very clear,” Smith noted. “Be collaborative, inclusive, communicative. I don’t make decisions in a vacuum.”
Another hallmark of Smith’s management style is expecting the people on her team to act timely in response to the needs of others on the team. The banking business relies heavily on meeting customers’ needs with a sense of urgency. That same attitude should apply to team members as well.
Smith’s ability to work well with others and her willingness to work hard served her well for climbing the ladder. Soon after receiving her MBA at the University of Arkansas, Smith entered the banking world as a management trainee. She worked her way through several banks, honing her lending skills and making strong connections along the way.
She took a break for a few years in the early 2000s due to some burnout, but quickly realized banking was in her blood, and she returned to the industry.
“I was fortunate enough to earn the trust and respect of one of my best mentors, Congressman French Hill, who was at the time the founder of Delta Trust & Bank. He gave me the chance to get back in the business,” Smith recalled.
Simmons Bank later purchased Delta Trust and offered her the position she now holds.
Transitioning from her position as a lender to director of business management at the SVP level was a unique challenge. As a lender, Smith had managed a large portfolio of commercial loan accounts and relationships. Now with this new role, she was entering uncharted waters.
“Banks are notorious for not dedicating resources to sales and business development planning. Simmons was no different,” Smith noted. The bank had been experiencing good growth for eight years straight, and the bankers were focused on keeping up with the business already coming to them.
Diverting resources to business development planning was difficult but in January 2020, Smith did exactly that — just in time for the arrival of COVID-19. For the first time, Simmons Bank had built a written, sales-and-business-development branding plan and dedicated a large amount of resources to it. COVID ended up putting a halt to that plan in March 2020, and Simmons quickly diverted all those resources to the PPP loan program.
Smith personally managed a huge part of the incoming PPP loan process for Central Arkansas until June 2021. That’s when the bank was able to dust off the original strategic business development plan, revise it and execute it.
Smith couldn’t have pushed past the challenges of the last few years — nor the ones she’s overcome throughout her career — if it weren’t for her strong work ethic. When asked about the secret to her success, she’ll say a lot of it boils down to the long hours she has spent working.
“I can pretty much outwork anybody in terms of time and effort.” The other thing she’ll say is, “respect.”
Smith’s philosophy is to always show it to customers, colleagues, competitors and community partners.
“Respect — if you give that, you get it back,” she said. “I have always eagerly accepted my place at the table when it was offered to me and worked harder than anybody who was at that table. But, on the flip side of that is trying to be gracious and respectful when I thought I deserved to sit at the table but wasn’t offered a chance to do so.”
An avid Razorback fan and world traveler, Smith said she’s trying to find a little more balance these days.
“There was a time in my life when I was always working, but I’m attempting to work less and live a little bit more in my golden years,” she shared. So, when she’s not working, one might find her at a Razorback game or might not find her at all since she loves to travel. Or perhaps she’ll be found in the least likely of places.
“If I could do anything I wanted, I would move to the country and build a cat farm taking care of all that came my way.”