Nikki Sunstrum, Director of Social Media and Public Engagement, joins U-M junior Keara Kotten to discuss her career path and provide perspective for students as they navigate their career search and recruitment processes through the University of Michigan.
If you could give one piece of advice to students first starting their career search process, what would that be?
Nikki: I think one of the most valuable pieces of information that I’ve learned over the course of my time and professional career is building a narrative for yourself that you support. So, not just being able to list the tasks that you’re able to do, but emphasizing the value that you bring. You’re not only picking a career path or job, but you’re going to be defining how you’ll spend 8, 10, 12 hours of your day.
Make intentional decisions, really do your homework and your research. I like to say that your doing your homework doesn’t end when you graduate, whether that be from high school or college or grad school. Look at what the organization represents. Look at where you can align your skills and tactics within the organization. When you enter an interview, you should be able to give examples to the questions that they ask you that are relevant to things you’ve learned about the company because you’ve done your homework. Those things will really help you shine and stand out in a candidate pool.
When you were first going into your career search process, what were the biggest things that you were looking for in companies?
Nikki: So this is a really fascinating one for me. My original passions lay in politics. I have formally held a publicly elected office. Community service and giving back has always been where my passion lies. I was fortunate to pursue that in the early days of my career. Coming out of undergraduate school with a degree in political science, then working within state government and being a part of policy and legislative affairs, then determining that I thought going back to graduate school and teaching the next generation about government and service was going to be the next step in my career path.
I finished graduate school in the first of the worst economies in my lifetime and understood that teaching in a high school environment was not going to sustain what else I wanted to accomplish in my life. So I went back into state government, and based on what I’ve learned about the environment that we were in, I started doing executive leadership development and leveraging the tools that I had as a younger millennial within an older generation of state employment. Specifically, teaching others how to use these innovative communications vehicles to increase government transparency and provide better customer service. Now we know those tools as social media, and it very quickly became my full-time job.
I took this passion for engagement and being proactive in communication strategies and leveraged the tools of the day to become the first statewide social media coordinator. I established the digital footprint for the state of Michigan. And oddly enough, it was Michigan that came knocking on my door when the position of Director of Social Media opened at U-M. It really was such a golden opportunity for me to combine that public service and political science element with the graduate degree in education that I had, and the passion for teaching to bring forth educational resources.
In your role and working with a lot of student interns, as we go through our interview process, what are some qualities or skills or traits that you look for when interviewing students?
Nikki: That’s a phenomenal question and one that I love to give background on. It might shock most people to learn that everyone currently within the #UMSocial office, not a single one of us have a degree in social media or are studying social media. And that’s reflective of a lot of things. You have to be good at a lot of different elements and then use the vehicles. Keara, as you’re familiar, I like to say, social media is a tool, not a solution. And what we bring to the table, whether it’s our degree area or our life experiences or the tools that we have, they’re not the perfect solutions. It’s the collective that makes us stronger. And we have to be creative in bringing forth the things that we’ve learned.
It’s not just about the A that you got on the paper. It’s about what got you to that A.
In everything that you did, whether you fostered relationships or whether or you did homework or research, whether you conducted an interview or spoke to someone. And those are the elements that I look for when I’m hiring interns.
Having six student interns on our team allows us to be really robust in bringing forth representation from every part of campus. Being aspirationally diverse in our content efforts is so vitally important to helping people feel represented and included. So I look not just at what it is that you’re studying, but your passion, what you bring to the table, what you want to explore, and where perhaps we have opportunities to help you grow. My end goal is that you land a really amazing job when you leave here. You’re not going to stay with me forever. I get the opportunity to learn from the brilliant students that Michigan has to become better at what we’re creating for them. And I truly feel like working within higher education and having the ability to listen often more times than we speak continues to help us grow, and maybe keeps us a little young.
The most nerve-racking part of recruiting is often the interview stage. You find a place that you’re super excited about, you do your research, and then you’re there. And sometimes, you are asked questions that you just don’t really know how to answer. So if you find yourself in that situation, what strategies do you have for how to answer these questions?
Nikki: Never be embarrassed to ask for time to think over a question because you want to be thoughtful in your response. But here’s an embarrassing one: I did pageants when I was younger. One of the tips that I was given is to always take that pause and use the time to repeat the question back so that you can use that as a prompt to launch you into what you might be speaking about. It also shows active listening skills. And that you are putting forth effort to pair whatever it is that you’re going to say with what is being said to you.
The other thing that I would say is to always be humble and transparent. If you struggle within a response or have not had an experience, well, it might not be the thing that gets you the job, or could be the thing that doesn’t get you the job. But in the end, it might not have been the job for you if you didn’t have the right response for the question. Put yourself in the hiring person’s shoes: if that was the most important thing that they needed you to say, and you either A) botched it or B) made it up, you might find yourself in a situation later where you’re unprepared for the role and the expectations that they’re setting forth. It’s absolutely going to happen. And that’s where that homework on the front end comes into play.
So when you’re in those interview situations and you’re being asked those difficult questions, take your time, take a deep breath, answer to the best of your ability.
And be honest if you don’t feel that you are prepared or that you have a good enough understanding of what it is that’s being asked of you.
As an employer, how do you weigh different factors such as resumes, grades, or experiences? And once you’re in the interview stage, should you go the more personal route or should you keep it strictly professional? How does it come across from the employer’s standpoint?
Nikki: It’s an excellent question. And honestly, I think that there’s so much of this that is dependent on the type of organization that you are seeking to be employed by. And I say that because going into state government, for example, it’s a much more traditional atmosphere. When I entered state government in 2004, you still weren’t allowed to have bare legs in the office. Nylons were still required. Now I own more suits that have collected dust over the course of the last year in the pandemic than I know what to do with, but I was a product of my environment and the environment that I was going into.
Whatever, those small things—even if they are visual, which can oftentimes be demeaning or superficial—shows that you’re taking it seriously and that you want it. It’s all about effort—whether it is the homework piece or bringing in a folder and a portfolio. And yes, I completely admit that all of these things make me sound terribly old, but I remember and I’ve kept every single “thank you” that anybody has ever sent to me. I think it does an enormous amount for solidifying a network that you can rely on. When you’re navigating those situations, when you’re looking at how you’re going to connect or how you’re going to leave that legacy so that when you leave the room, they’re still remembering, “Gosh, that Keara, she really stood out.” It’s all those small things that sometimes mean the most.
Always addressing people with their names and their proper names, taking the time to bring in notes and write them down. Making sure that you take the time afterwards to make that “thank you” unique, reference something that they said to you, or talk about a shared experience. Holding that level of professionalism throughout the interview process is extremely important. And then coming in once you’ve accepted the role is where you learn where you can be a little more personal. We navigate those things slowly, but the pandemic has also shifted a lot of that. Sometimes, that’s made it more difficult because the boundaries of work and home have almost completely dissipated. It makes it really challenging because you’re always on and it’s hard to be off. Or people know how messy your room is, or you forget to turn off your Zoom and you see the laundry that I haven’t taken care of yet. It changes your perceptions of people, but hopefully it also makes us all a little more empathetic and compassionate too.
What has been the most rewarding part of your career?
Nikki: So, I’ve got a couple. Coming into an industry in its infancy has had enormous struggles. It’s still really challenging to address the perception and reality of what it is that social communications professionals do. We don’t just sit around and tweet. Yeah, sometimes I get to make GIPHY stickers or approve memes, but that is absolutely not the extent of the work and the effort and the time and the strategy that goes into what it is that we’re accomplishing. So I’d say one of the things that I’m most proud of is the way in which I’ve been able to elevate the work that social communications professionals do. I’ve been able to advocate for the importance of their time, their mental health, and for the responsibility that they hold for a seat at the table. In many spaces now, not only is there a director-level social media position, but they are not the last person to know about things. They’re at the table from the beginning.
As you’re aware, if we’re going to talk passion projects, one of my biggest accomplishments is the Social Integrity project. It is one of the things that I think will be part of the legacy that I leave. It’s not just the elevation of strategic communications through these truncated mechanisms and these interactive vehicles of technology, but it’s about adding value in those spaces. It’s about knowing and owning and being held accountable for the impact that we make, good, bad, or ugly. It’s about educating yourself on what privacy and security means, on what it means to make a difference, what it means to not troll or how to address trolls, and that that is real-life harassment. I think there’s an enormous amount of responsibility on those of us that do strategic communications and social media to also empower our community members who we are asking to meet us on these platforms, to know and understand what we’re asking them to do.
It’s a tool, not a solution. And it’s a tool that comes with enormous cost because we’ve truly seen how it has reshaped our democracy, our society, our lives, and our mental health. We’ve got to be wiser about being advocates not just for ourselves in our industry, but the impact that it has. And I’ve had the opportunity to speak about that around the globe. I’m still teaching. I am still getting out there and talking and advocating and creating resources, which takes me back to my community service and public service roots.
It is certainly one of the best parts of my job. In the world that we’re living in, it is all the more important to take responsibility and understand that we should never speak for others who are perfectly capable of speaking for themselves, and that we learn more when we listen and not just talk. I am certainly a talker. This conversation has gone on far longer than we originally had scheduled time for. And I love having constructive dialogues like this. But you want to walk away having also learned something from the other people and not just talking over them.
Removing ourselves from the equation is often difficult but sometimes the most rewarding. But what you really want to hear might not be me. It’s going to be the individuals who have the experience that’s the most relevant or the personal narrative that will really make the largest impact. And we do a really great job, I think personally, of sharing that megaphone to advocate for change. And I love that I get to wake up and do that every single day.