World Cup “Smiling Lessons” Shed Light on Importance of Executive Presence

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World Cup “Smiling Lessons” Shed Light on Importance of Executive Presence

Newsweek recently reported on how Russia was giving “smiling lessons” for the World Cup to help the locals seem friendlier to tourists. This is an interesting example of just how far the concept of executive presence (EP) can reach. After all, it’s not necessarily how you feel on a given day or interaction that makes a difference—it’s how you seem to feel based on the emotions that you project. I often say that executive presence is less about your actual performance—it relates to the signals you send off when engaging in day-to-day interactions with others.

The World Cup example is a case in point. In the article, Newsweek staff writer Damien Sharkov digs a bit more deeply into what’s behind the Russian poker face, which resulted in Moscow recently being named “the world’s most unfriendly city.” Sharkov points out that part of the stereotype traces back to cultural differences. It isn’t that Russians necessarily feel more morose than those in places that smile more often, but that most Russians associate a dour look with normalcy, since a common Russian viewpoint is “that one’s default look should not be one of happiness.”

This perspective carries over to how they feel about others smiling as well. A 2015 study found that Russians are more likely than those of different cultures to take a negative view toward smiling strangers, assuming that the smile means the happy-looking folk are less intelligent or even dishonest. If you knew others would evaluate you negatively if they saw you smiling, you might take pains to look joyless as well, even if you’d just had a spectacular day.

How does this relate to executive presence? SHAMBAUGH has found that EP tops the list of how executives are evaluated. In fact, recent studies have shown that this seemingly amorphous quality counts for 26 percent of what it takes to influence people and earn a promotion. Just as Russian public transportation authorities are showing their employees how to smile so that World Cup visitors won’t mistake “local brusqueness for inhospitality,” as Sharkov writes, executives (and those who aspire to become leaders) also need to master certain skills to convey the leadership vibe that they want to communicate to others.

In the case of the Russians, group seminars were conducted to teach the transit workers how to use a six-step process designed to produce world-class smiles, training cheek muscle memory. It may sound funny, but if you aren’t used to doing something, the only way to learn it is by practicing.

So too is the case in learning to develop executive presence. I describe EP as the combination of behaviors and attitudes that enable you to clearly and confidently express your ideas and influence others. It’s what allows you to be more intentional, credible, and better prepared to lead most effectively—particularly in challenging circumstances, interactions, and dynamics.

SHAMBAUGH’s research-based and proven model for executive presence drills down into the core of the why, what, and how so that leaders can tap into the ideal presence that helps them become most effective at the helm. To give you an idea of the framework, here are some of the areas we cover in our Coaching and Development Program for Mastering Executive Presence:

  • Executive voice. A huge component of EP is developing an executive voice. But an executive voice is not always what you say but how you say it—as well as who you say it to and when you say it. I refer to this skill as “showing up strategically.” This is critical, for example, when communicating with executives or senior leadership. Do you speak with authority and definitiveness when presenting your opinions?It’s important to be concise and clear about what your intention is. Minimize your words, but make them powerful, relevant, and impactful.


  • Physical and non-verbal language. Communication at the executive level is about much more than your speaking style. Your executive presence is also reflected in the level of confidence you radiate and the energy and passion you project to others. Our non-verbal signals—such as eye contact, facial features, posture, and poise—account for a significant component of our presence. Are you aware and intentional about tapping into these non-verbal tools to create strong executive presence? If so, your physical and non-verbal language should also project that gravity and belief in your ideas.


  • Emotional and social intelligence. Old-school leadership was about a top-down approach, with the leader in the spotlight and others simply following behind. Today’s leaders understand that presence now requires the art of listening to what others are saying and recognizing what your team members feel about a situation before trying to convince them of your own viewpoint. It’s also about staying calm under pressure, sensing the environment, and adapting your style as needed.


  • Strategic and business context. To bolster their executive presence, strategic leaders avoid getting lost in the day-to-dayminutia and instead areable to articulate an aspirational view of the future. They communicate this alongside a business rationale for transformation to help guide clear courses of individual and corporate action. Leaders with strong EP also prioritize investing in and cultivating broad strategic relationships. These actions help to expand leaders’ bandwidth on the organizational dynamics and business objectives beyond their day-to-day world.


To learn more about participating in SHAMBAUGH’s results-focused Coaching and Development Program for Mastering Executive Presence, click here or contact me at

Rebecca Shambaugh is a leadership expert on building inclusive cultures and high performance cultures. She is the Founder of Women in Leadership and Learning, a regular contributor to Harvard Business Review, and blogger for the Huffington Post. She is author of the best-selling books It’s Not a Glass Ceiling, It’s a Sticky Floor and Make Room for Her: Why Companies Need an Integrated Leadership Model to Achieve Extraordinary Results

We’re on a mission to develop high-performing and inclusive leaders who transform workplace cultures so everyone can thrive. Find out more about us at:

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