Interview: Norma Coldwell

On Monday, Diane discussed the importance of women supporting each other at work through mentors and sponsors. Yesterday, 4word had the honor of interviewing Diane’s mentor, Norma Coldwell.

A mother of two and a graduate of the University of Illinois in 1947 and the University of North Texas in 1972, Norma has led a long, successful career. She served as the Assistant Dean of Women at SMU before moving to Washington D. C., where she worked for the Treasury Department and then the international Riggs Bank. Although she is still a busy woman, she took time out of her day for a phone interview with 4word to share some of her wisdom with us.

4word: This week at 4word, we’ve been talking about women mentoring one another. Can you tell us about some of the women who supported you during your career?

Norma: Actually, most of my mentors have been men. And they just happened; I didn’t seek them out. For example, my husband, Philip, was my greatest mentor. In the beginning, I helped him with his PhD work, and later on he helped me in my career. We worked and – more importantly – prayed together. However I think that my first mentor was really my mother. She was always so far ahead of herself that my sister and I are just now realizing everything that she did. When she was 19, she got an appointment teaching school on the Chippewa Indian Reservation and traveled by herself to northern Minnesota, first by train and then by covered sled. Her whole life was like that.

4word: What did your mother teach you that has stuck with you today?

Norma: She used to tell me, “Do your best always. Anything that’s worth doing is worth doing right.” She also emphasized the importance of education. When she heard that the University of Illinois was giving four-year scholarships to students who scored the highest on an examination, she encouraged me to take the exam. I was the only girl in the room, but I won the scholarship. That opened a whole new world for me, and I have continued to educate myself ever since.

4word: How do you suggest that young professional Christian women (YPCWs) find a good mentor?

Norma: Find someone you already know, whose experience you recognize and respect. And make sure it’s someone with integrity. You can’t reveal to just anyone what your frustrations are.

4word: Over the course of your career, what changes have you witnessed regarding women in the workplace and the opportunities available to them?

Norma: I suppose there are more women in executive positions, but I haven’t had the experience of working with too many of them. I’ve been on a number of boards of directors, and I’ve been the only woman. I know I was originally hired as the token woman, but then I surprised them. I think that’s another thing that women should keep in mind. Know what you know. You have to be confident in yourself before you can make recommendations or be a leader of anything. However, the other side of that is recognizing when you need to say, “I don’t know, but I can find out.” It’s a mixture of confidence and humility. Be sure of the skills you are marketing but also be willing to go find information that you need but don’t have.

4word: Good advice! Is there anything you wish you’d been told when you were just beginning your career that you’d like to share with today’s YPCWs?

Norma: Like my mother told me, it is so important to pray. My sister and I have traveled together a lot. One day she said to me, “Norm, do you know you talk to yourself a lot?” I said, “I’m not talking to myself. I’m praying.” I think it’s so important – and not just at night or when you get up. I pray all day long. I pray when the phone rings that I have the right words to say. I was praying before this interview that I’d know the right things to say to you.

4word: Well you have certainly shared some excellent advice with us today. Before I let you go, is there anything else I haven’t yet mentioned that you’d like to share?

Norma: Looking back over everything I’ve done, it’s really been a big, wonderful adventure. I think that God puts us in different places at different times in our lives to do whatever jobs He wants us to do. We can’t plan wonderful adventures like I’ve had, but the Lord can. I think you have to be ready to meet His call when He calls. The other thing to remember is that His timing is not our timing. We may be ready for action today – or think we are – and He’s not quite ready yet. It took me a long time to realize that.