Oct. 08

Taking a board member role: be 100 % convinced that you can bring real value

Top managers often have the background and the ambition to work on the board of one or more companies in addition to or instead of, their direct everyday management responsibilities. The BMI Alumni Association recently held a knowledge-sharing event about what is required to obtain a position as a board member and how to succeed in such a role, combining it with managing one’s own business or corporate career.  

These topics have been discussed at the event with BMI Alumni: Inga Ilkytė, a principal at the international executive search firm Pedersen & Partners, Mindaugas Rudys, a board member at Šiaulių Bankas and  Nedas Karklius, independent board member at private and public enterprises; together with Virginijus Lepeška, one of the most experienced independent board members in Lithuania.

 Stage 1: considering taking a role

“The profession of board member, like that of a doctor, requires a vocation,” Virginijus Lepeška noted. “It’s a big responsibility, and you need to think about yourself too. You will live with that company’s problems all the time, since that’s why you’re hired, to solve problems. The worst thing is when a board member doesn’t want to give so much as to take.”

“Nobody wants a board member who just comes to sit in meetings,” Nedas Karklius agreed, adding: “Don’t go there if you’re not 100 percent convinced that you can bring real value.”

A candidate should take great care in choosing what boards to serve on, as it is a quite big responsibility, all discussion participants stressed.

They suggest NOT agreeing to be on a board:

  • if there is no trust and/or you disagree on important values;
  • if you are not actually actively involved in the company’s management and able to stay aware of what is going on in the company, also outside your area of direct responsibility;
  • if you have conflicts of interest (the interests of the company must be above your own interests, and that requires total openness and clear communication);
  • if you are unable or unwilling to give the significant time and effort that the role requires.

 Stage 2: getting a seat on a board

Board recruiters seek to match candidates’ skill sets with a company’s strategy and culture. According to Inga Ilkytė, the traditional view still dominates that executive experience is an essential qualification for a board role.

She and the other speakers said specific traits that are sought include:

  • Extensive experience, deep and relevant competence, and diversity (including a general desire for more women on boards);
  • The mind of an innovator and active problem solver (who knows when to be proactive);
  • The mind of a challenger who are both tough and collegial, with strong emotional intelligence especially for establishing and maintaining trust even in crisis situations is also important;
  • Strategic thinking;
  • Leadership developer experience (willingness to help executives and guide them);
  • Loyalty, honesty, integrity, and commitment.

In terms of process, things that can help get selected as a board member include experience in senior corporate roles and also on boards, as well as being visible. Therefore, other persons’ recommendations are of key importance.

 Stage 3: succeeding as a member of a board

Success is time consuming and is mostly achieved outside the boardroom. That is the key message the gathered experts had for would-be board members.

Obviously, they said, it is vital to come prepared for meetings, but that is not just about reading materials you are sent. It requires building and maintaining strong relationships with board members, stakeholders, key investors, and the broader management team.

In those relationships there must be trust. Board members need to learn to give advice by asking questions and redirecting attention rather than by instructing.

Their task remains, though, to challenge: to tell top managers they are looking at things the wrong way, to protect the company from its owner, to oppose board or management decisions that are not aligned with key values. Board members need broad vision and the backbone to stand behind their opinion.

“It often happens that CEOs lack resolve even though they have big ambitions. They want a lot, but when it comes time ‘to put the money on the table’, things jam up. The board is needed to speed up decisions, so they get made,” Mr Lepeška noted. He also said boards often lack deep expertise on matters that arise, making it essential to always be learning, seeking information, bringing your knowledge up to date.

As for coordinating a board membership with one’s other work, Mr Karklius stressed the importance of managing and planning time, aware that things may get complicated sometimes. “When problems arise, they often arise everywhere at the same time – like with COVID-19, which impacted everyone. So you have to keep that aspect in mind.”

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