I shot a video recently where my first boss said I was “a bit of a mess” out of college. Some people have asked if I was offended by that statement and the answer is absolutely not. For starters, it’s the truth, but – more importantly – if I hadn’t been such a disaster when I entered the workforce, I probably wouldn’t have discovered the path I’m on now.

If you’re curious, here are just a few of my rookie mistakes:

  • I wore blazers over tube tops in the office… and thought I was being chic.
  • I showed up late.
  • When I did arrive, sometimes I had wet hair and/or no make-up.
  • I turned in work plans in French Script font.
  • I hung out with an office smoker and accompanied her on “breaks” that lasted 15-20 minutes at a time.

Sad, I know, but here’s the catch. I was lucky enough to have a great mentor who saw potential in me and took the time to help me become a better, more polished professional. One of the biggest lessons I learned from him at the time was the art of “Gene Kelly Dance Steps.”

You may not know who Gene Kelly is but, suffice it to say that in the Golden Age of Hollywood, Kelly was considered the best dancer in the business. However, he wasn’t actually the best dancer. Others in the industry were more naturally gifted, but Kelly stood out because he was a tireless student of “the incremental edge.”

The incremental edge is a series of seemingly “little” things that build up over time to make someone outstanding at what they do. For Gene Kelly, it was the perfect crease of his pants, a signature tip of the hat, a “look” to the camera, etc. that added up to make his dancing appear effortless.

As a young professional, my career really turned a corner once I picked up the art of Gene Kelly Dance Steps. I obviously wasn’t tipping any hats in the office, but I did begin to:

  • Send handwritten thank you notes
  • Keep a pristine work space
  • Dress like someone with a future at my company
  • Turn in assignments early
  • Adopt a new, professional-looking font choice
  • Extend small courtesies to coworkers, e.g. offer a favorite caramel latte, refill the copy paper, knock before barging in, stand when being introduced, etc.

None of these actions – if taken alone – would have done much to improve my negative personal brand at the time but, collectively, they were very powerful in overcoming the initial perception that I wasn’t taking my career very seriously. And that’s the point of the incremental edge. It’s not about grand, sweeping gestures. It’s little things that, when taken together, equal big success.


Emily Bennington is the author of Effective Immediately: How to Fit In, Stand Out, and Move Up at Your First Real Job. She hosts a popular blog for career newbies at www.professionalstudio365.com and can be found on Twitter @EmilyBennington or via email at ebennington[at]msn[dot]com.