Crafting a Cover Letter To Impress Employers, with Zerline Hughes Spruill

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Find Your Dream Job, BONUS Episode 007:

Crafting a Cover Letter To Impress Employers, with Zerline Hughes Spruill

Airdate: September 17, 2018

Mac Prichard:

This is Find Your Dream Job, the podcast that helps you get hired, find the career you want, and make a difference in life. I’m Mac Prichard, founder and publisher of Mac’s List.

To get your dream job you need clear goals, great skills, and a good network. You also have to know how to look for work. One of the best ways to get good at job hunting is to talk to people who do it well.

That’s why once a month on our show, I interview a Mac’s List reader who found a job they love. Our guest shares how they did it and offers their best job search tips.

Our guest today is Zerline Hughes Spruill. She’s the Managing Director of Communications at Advancement Project in Washington, DC.

Many people think of LinkedIn as a kind of online resume. However, it’s also a publishing platform. You can use it to share industry news with others. Doing so is not only a way to serve your professional peers, it can even lead to a job offer.

That’s what happened to our guest this month. In an article you can find on the Mac’s List website, Zerline says she caught the eye of a recruiter because she posted useful information on LinkedIn every week. A headhunter saw those articles, called her, and today she has a job she loves.

Zerline, welcome to the show.

Zerline Hughes Spruill:

Thanks so much for having me.

Mac Prichard:

Well, it’s a pleasure. Today you’re the Managing Director of Communications at Advancement Project. Why do you love your job, Zerline?

Zerline Hughes Spruill:

Well, I love my job here at Advancement Project’s national office because I get a chance to work with a team. In previous positions, I was probably one of a few, or had a few, interns to work with but here we have a team of folks in our communication department where we can collaborate, brainstorm, and try new things out.

I also love my job because I love my boss and I know a lot of people don’t get a chance to say that but I am working for an executive director who says out loud that she loves the people she works with, she loves the people she is working on behalf of, and she is just a fantastic model.

Mac Prichard:

That sounds like the best of both worlds: a boss that you respect and admire and a team that you get to work with every day.

Let’s talk about your job search, Zerline. In the article you wrote for our website, you shared that you were not looking for work. But what you did on LinkedIn inspired a recruiter to call you. Tell us more about that.

Zerline Hughes Spruill:

Absolutely. I know that LinkedIn seems a little foggy for some folks but they’ve changed over the years where it’s very user friendly and it works like Facebook. I am now on LinkedIn almost as much as I am on Facebook, posting similar stories, more relevant to the work that I do, the social justice issues that I’m working on behalf of. Just being able to connect with folks on there is just as fun, even more helpful than, connecting with those folks and friends that they have on Facebook.

I was posting as a consultant at the time, articles that I had written, events that I helped to manage, or events that I was actually attending on my own. I was reposting the information that colleagues were sharing and I think it was really to my benefit.

Mac Prichard:

Tell us about the kind of engagement you got. I know you shared in your article that a recruiter called you because that person saw those stories. What other kinds of engagement did you get when you were visiting LinkedIn so frequently?

Zerline Hughes Spruill:

I noticed that more people were interested in linking in and connecting. I was able to meet a few folks on there that were interested in mentoring opportunities, whether being my mentor or asking me to be their mentor. That was really useful.

I also had a chance to hook up with folks who were, at the time, like me, consulting, and met several graphic designers, web designers, where I could work with them and we could collaborate. That was also very helpful.

Finally, I found folks through LinkedIn, or folks who found me through LinkedIn, by some of the articles I posted on my personal blog. I was writing about my experience as a mother, my experience as someone in the social justice movement, and the intersection between the two.

The blog is called Not These Two. That refers to the fact that not these two children of mine are going to be part of the school-to-prison pipeline. There was an increase in blog traffic, there was an increase in folks asking me to write about issues for their websites and publications. It was a win-win situation all around.

Mac Prichard:

What inspired you to do this, Zerline? As I mentioned at the start of the show, many of our listeners might think of LinkedIn as a place where you post information about your career history and you stop there. Why did you go further?

Zerline Hughes Spruill:

Absolutely. When I first began consulting, I realized I was going to have to hustle and find work. In the beginning, I was going to events, maybe two or three times a week, with business cards. I wanted to make sure that people knew I was in the field. That got tiring after a while so I took to social media, particularly LinkedIn, just to let folks know that I was still in the game. I was still a reputable person in the field of social justice and communications and wanted to work on behalf of the issue. I found that I did not have to go out as much, and instead, I could post. I could communicate online, again on LinkedIn and I could drum up more work.

Mac Prichard:

You did get that email from a recruiter who saw your posts. This is something I think we think all hope will happen. That we’ll be courted by a hiring manager or head hunter. When you got that message, tell us what happened next?

Zerline Hughes Spruill:

I got an email through LinkedIn from the recruiter and she mentioned that she saw my post, that she was interested in the resume that was also posted on LinkedIn. We then began to talk on LinkedIn, transferred over to Gmail, then to the landline. I learned more about the position and, though I was not looking for full-time work, it sounded exciting so I thought I would give it a chance. But again, wasn’t actively looking for professional full-time work in communications and social justice, as I had just left the field three years prior.

But I thought it was a really great and creative way to interact, to learn about a position, and I felt as though the person on the other side of the phone call, the recruiter, was able to be a little bit more comfortable in answering my questions and offer a little bit more information about the job that was being filled.

Mac Prichard:

In your article for our website, you mentioned that the hiring process went on for a few months. How did you stay patient during that period, Zerline, and eventually how did you know that this was the right job for you?

Zerline Hughes Spruill:

Good question. It was hard at first because, being in the field of communications, you want things to work very quickly, and of course, when you are in fact looking for a position you want things to move very quickly. Because again, I wasn’t looking for immediate employment, I was able to try to take it easy, continue with my contracts, but also continue with the continual steps in the interview process. There were several steps. There was the recruiter phone call/interview, then there was the informational interview with the Advancement Project, then there was the Managing Team panel that interviewed me, which was followed by the Communications Team outing. It was basically a really nice opportunity to meet the team and for the team of communications folks here to meet me.

After that, there was a lunch set up with the Executive Director, which, again, was a really great opportunity to understand all of the different roles in the organization, and who I would be working with, and understand their personalities. Ask them questions as well. Then after that lunch there was another little coffee with the executive director. There were several interviews and conversations as part of the process but I held tight. When it did get to about three months, I started to get impatient but it was all for positive stuff. It worked out.

Mac Prichard:

What do you think made the biggest difference as you went through that process and your eventual success? Because three months is a long time and there are a lot of steps you had to go through. What do you think made you stand out as a candidate?

Zerline Hughes Spruill:

I think that me being very comfortable during all those meetings and interviews…I think that was helpful. I think I was comfortable because I knew the issue and the more I got to learn about the different roles and people at the organization, I became very at ease with the idea of transitioning into full-time work. I felt as though it would be a good fit so I was willing to be patient enough to wait it out.

Again, based on my experience in the field, I thought that they saw that I could speak clearly about the issue. I felt as though they were interested in someone who understood both sides of communications. The public relations piece and the journalism piece, of which I have experience in.

I also feel like they understood, through my passion shown through the blog that I talked about, in addition to my dedication to the field of communications, is what helped me get the position.

Mac Prichard:

What’s striking as you tell your story, Zerline, is, I don’t hear you say it and maybe you did do this, that you filled out a formal job application. What I’m hearing is that you created content that attracted the attention of a leading organization in your field and that led to a series of informal conversations, and then formal meetings and interviews, but you didn’t actually reply to an ad, did you?

Zerline Hughes Spruill:

That is correct. In fact, I actually saw the job announcement several months prior to being contacted about it. I noticed it but I wasn’t interested in the position. Then someone told me about it and I considered it, and I was like, “Nope. I’m okay.” But then when I got that phone call, that’s when I became interested.

A lot of positions now, there’s not an official application. I feel like the application process is, at least in this particular case, LinkedIn. It may be very much a long-form, long-term application, but in the meantime, you’re still making connections. With me posting articles, reposting other people’s content, bragging about some of the stuff I was doing or the things I was doing for other people as part of contracting management, that, in essence, was my application. Folks could see in real time what I was doing, where I was appearing, how my work and my skills were being utilized. They could also see how I was able to promote those items, which is a part of the job expectation here.

Mac Prichard:

It’s a great story and we always love to close, Zerline, by asking our guests about their number one job hunting tip. What would you offer our listeners?

Zerline Hughes Spruill:

Wow, number one job hunting tip. The best cover letter…writing the best cover letter you can, I think. If you’re able to tell your story, answer all of the questions that they are in essence asking you in that job description, I think you can have a successful job hunt. I feel like explaining the fact that the type of person you are in that cover letter, explaining your field of expertise, explaining some of the things that you have done successfully in previous positions, is really what it takes.

Mac Prichard:

That’s terrific advice. Zerline, thanks for sharing your story! You can learn more about Zerline’s job search by visiting macslist.org/stories.

Check out the Mac’s List website for dozens of other success stories like Zerline’s. Every Friday, we add a new interview with a Mac’s List reader who has found their dream job. Go to macslist.org/stories.

In the meantime, thank you our listeners for downloading today’s bonus episode of Find Your Dream Job.

If you’re in the midst of a long job search, it can feel like you’ve exhausted every possible avenue to find a new job. Consider taking a closer look at your LinkedIn profile and connections, and revising your cover letter to find more success in your job search. On this bonus episode of the Find Your Dream Job podcast, I chat with Zerline Hughes Spruill, who is the Managing Director of Communications at the Advancement Project in Washington, DC about how she used LinkedIn as a platform to grow her professional brand and attract attention from potential employers, and how she used her cover letter to refine her job search. Learn more about Zerline’s career history below in our Q&A with her for our Success Stories series.


What do you do for a career? Who do you work for?

I am Managing Director of Communications for Advancement Project. I manage the strategic communications and outreach for a mid-size nonprofit that is dedicated to racial justice, particularly as it relates to voting rights, immigration and education.

How long did it take you to find this job?

Though I wasn’t actively looking for full-time employment, the process from start to finish took two months during the summer.

How did you find your job? What resources did you use? What tool or tactic helped the most?

LinkedIn really works! I wasn’t looking for a job, but heard with regular updates to LinkedIn, including weekly posts, comments and keeping your profile updated, that other users will notice you. This was the case with a headhunter who apparently found me on LinkedIn.

What was the most difficult part of your job search? How did you overcome this challenge?

Because I wasn’t actively searching, there was no difficulty in the hunt. However, being patient over the two-month period with the one employer was difficult. As a contractor, I was squeamish about taking on new contracts in the event I was, in fact hired. But I understood that the process was going to take time because the organization wanted the right person for this leadership role; it was summer and staff wasn’t readily available for panel interviews and they didn’t want to rush into such a big decision.

What is the single best piece of advice you would offer other job-seekers?

When working with a search firm, ask them questions. Let them truly guide you by asking for their input on your resume, cover letter, interview input. They want you to succeed as much as you do yourself.

Why do you love your job?

I love my job because after only two weeks, I feel valued, appreciated and needed. I also love my job because I know what I’m doing – what we’re doing – makes a difference. Finally, I love my job because they hosted a staff retreat where staff really got to “retreat,” and relax, and team-build.