Ninth-grader Tanya James sat on the gym floor at Horace Mann Middle School and wept.
She’d just been handed the first real setback in her young life, failure to make the school’s drill team, an outcome that her young mind struggled to comprehend. The product of an achievement-oriented household where excellence was the expectation, she’d worked hard to prepare for the fateful tryout day. But it hadn’t been enough; one by one names were called until the roster was full, leaving her stunned among the wannabes and also-rans.
“That was the first time I felt real devastation as a teenager, because I did everything I thought I was supposed to do,” she says. “I cried; it was so bad that day, they had to call my mom to get me out of the gym because I wouldn’t leave.”
Her mother, Lillie Carter, a longtime Little Rock teacher and principal, arrived to find her child disconsolate and in the throes of teenage angst. She listened to her daughter’s lamentations about how no one would be her friend now, how she would never find her place.
“I can’t go back to school,” Tanya said, dramatically.
At this, her mother sized her up. “Can’t died yesterday,” she said.
“My mother always said, ‘Can’t died yesterday,'” and I’d go ‘Why is she saying that?'” James says. “But she kept reinforcing that and it inspired me, because if I want it, I can do it. That was one of the early life lessons that I learned, that no one’s just going to hand you anything.”
At the thought, James’ eyes scan someplace far off, remembering what it felt like to rise from the gym floor and face the uncertainty of the next, as-yet unseen chapter of life. Making the team meant so much then; the lessons learned through not making it mean even more now. She smiles.
“Listen to your mom and you can’t go wrong,” she says.
For Tanya James, the first step toward success in anything is putting yourself out there. Throughout her life, she has taken front and center in everything she does, from extracurricular activities and community service to a career that has seen her rise to the rank of senior vice president, branch administrator with Arvest Bank.
In her childhood church — Moore’s Chapel AME Zion Church in Cleveland (Conway County) — hers was the angelic voice in the middle of the Songbird Choir carrying lilting hymns to the ears of the faithful. In school, both the public and Sunday varieties, she and her sister Michelle were held to a higher standard. Not only was their mother a career educator but their father, the late Rev. Dr. Michael O. Carter, was a pastor.
Decorum, scholarship and accomplishment were held in the highest esteem and the drumbeat of striving for excellence set a steady rhythm for daily life.
“My parents are my biggest mentors because they taught me respect, honor, dignity,” James says. “They taught me my name was very important because your name came with character and respect and that was based on how you acted and treated other people.”
James is quick to admit that this perspective has come with time after having eluded her throughout much of her formative years.
“Things were strict. I remember in the summertime, we thought summer was a break from school but really, summertime for Mom was summer school at the kitchen table,” she says. “She made sure we read books, did book reports. It was uncomfortable and sometimes I couldn’t understand why we had to do it. None of my friends were doing schoolwork in the summer. I know now what she was doing, but back then that was tough.”
By the time she reported to historic Little Rock Central High School, James’ leadership and academic chops had been honed to a glittering edge. She rebounded from her Horace Mann disappointment to make Central’s prestigious Hi Steppers drill team where she was captain for two years. She was also elected class president and inducted into the school district’s Hall of Fame as a senior.
“Tanya was the kind of kid who was friendly to everybody. She wasn’t cliquey and I admired that, even back then,” says longtime Central High Principal Nancy Rousseau, who was assistant principal when James was a student.
“She’s measured; I never saw her as being trivial or silly. I think she’s very rational. She is smart. She’s obviously got leadership skills. When you graduate in a class of 500-600 kids and you’re elected by your peers as the president of the class, you have to be able to have reached all different students of all different levels, of all different cultures. I’m just very proud of her.”
Indeed, James’ life had followed a straight and definitive arc by the time she enrolled at Henderson State University, right down to studying education as a way of following in her mother’s footsteps. Which, as she will tell you, is what made her decision to step off the expected track such a bold and unexpected move, as she just couldn’t shake the feeling that something about her major didn’t fit.
“My mom taught us to be independent thinkers and I asked myself, ‘Do I really want to do that? What if I do something really different?'” she says. “I think me trying something different was the best thing to happen. I was figuring out what I wanted and to be honest with you, I struggled with it. I just thought, I’ll see where this lands me.”
During this period of searching, James would take time off from college — “What my mom nicely calls my ‘gap’ years,” she laughs — to test the working world. She’d landed a part-time teller position with Arvest while in college and as she sorted everything else out, she turned her attention to working full time, thus unknowingly launching her career success story.
“Teller was comfortable to me; I did that for about seven months and I liked it because I like people,” she says. “Then I applied for deposit counselor, the person who opens new accounts. I figured I’d be good at the sales aspect of it and I got it. Once I mastered that, I was always looking at what these other positions were and when assistant manager jobs would open, I’d apply.”
The first few attempts at management roles didn’t go anywhere, but having long ago realized “can’t” was dead and buried, James was undeterred. She took each failed attempt as a sign to work harder and learn more until finally opportunity bent to her considerable will.
Alongside moving up the corporate ladder, James finished her undergraduate degree and an MBA, but as for the guts of how to lead people, that came naturally. Her subordinates quickly learned the steel that lay behind the smile when it came to her standards for customer service and meeting company objectives.
“I’ll be blunt; I set boundaries from Day 1,” she says. “There are opportunities for friendships and opportunities to lead. Even my 10th grade year on the Hi Steppers team, they asked me to take attendance. If someone was late or didn’t have the proper attire, I told the coach. Even back then, I’d rather have you respect me than like me.
“I think when I initially didn’t get an assistant manager position, it’s because everyone saw me as this nice person, and I am. But I can lead, I can say no, I can tell someone their behavior is not acceptable, I can coach effectively. I always set that expectation of don’t ask me to go out and party or drink with you, but if you get married then yes, I’ll come support you. You have to set those boundaries.”
James moved from the retail side of the company to Arvest’s private banking department, what she calls her “favorite job, ever,” for everything it taught her. There, she hit her stride, growing her book of business from 35 to 200 clients before stepping into her current role about a year ago, just as the pandemic was worming its way into everyday life, changing how businesses were run and managed.
“We had the reality of closed lobbies. So, everything we were doing to serve people in the lobby now moved to the drive-thru,” she says. “We had to figure out how to open accounts in the drive-thru. We did curbside service. We started an express lane at our Highway 10 location because traffic got backed up, and that worked well.”
“Hiring was totally different, because I’m hiring over Zoom. Anytime you manage, you have to foster relationships and now all my meetings are on Zoom, they’re seeing me on Zoom and nothing was really a personal experience. I’ll be honest, that was my biggest challenge because developing a relationship over Zoom takes more time and is less effective than doing it in person.”
“A lot of people think we’re in the…