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Amanda Kraus, Incoming USRowing CEO, Q&A

BY ED MORAN
PHOTOS PROVIDED BY ROW NEW YORK

Just prior to being announced as the new USRowing CEO, Amanda Kraus took some time to talk with Rowing News about her decision to leave Row New York, take over an organization that has been without permanent leadership since former CEO Patrick McNerney left less than three years into his tenure, and one that is struggling in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Here is the full question and answer session.  

Rowing News: Why leave Row New York after building it into such a successful organization to take over the helm at USRowing and all the challenges it is facing?

Kraus: I started Row New York so that it would exist, and it’s definitely been a privilege and a joy to lead it for 18-years, but it is in a really good place right now, pandemic aside, in terms of stability and reputation. It has great fundraisers and a fantastic, functional board, so it doesn’t need me anymore. It has a great executive director and senior team and all those things.

So, when this role opened up and I started talking with a couple of board members at USRowing, I thought, well, I know there is a lot of work to do and I know that there is a lot of change that needs to happen to make USRowing successful, and I have enough humility to know that there is a chance I won’t be successful, but I would like to try.

And I think there is enough goodwill, I think there are enough smart people, I think there are enough resources in the rowing world, that USRowing can be successful. I would like to try to complete that puzzle. 

Rowing News: What do you see as the first priorities? How and where do you start and what do you hope to accomplish?

Kraus: I think I have to start by doing a lot more listening than talking, which is my style, at least for sure in the beginning. I have my idea of what needs to change and what needs to be done, but those are mine, and mine alone. I only have one vantage point so I think I need to have a lot of conversations with stakeholders, and not just the loudest voices, not just the people who are already filling up my inbox, but reach out to the heads of clubs, and masters rowers, and adaptive rowers, and national team members, and ask them what’s working for you, what’s not working, what can USRowing do better? And then, ideally, I think I will start to see some themes coming out of that. You don’t want to get just one person’s opinion, or five people’s opinions. What are the themes? What do people want from this organization that they are not getting?

“I think I have to start by doing a lot more listening than talking, which is my style, at least for sure in the beginning.”

— Amanda Kraus

And then it is spending some time digesting all of that, thinking about, OK what am I hearing and then how does it align with what is actually possible, and then bringing that back to the board and saying, OK, this is what I think we can do. I can’t make a plan yet until I hear from folks.

What I do feel confident about, one thing I know needs to happen, is there needs to be a culture shift. I think the sport needs to be more inclusive. I think the sport better needs to reflect the diversity of our country. I think a lot of people are thinking that now, so that to me is the low hanging fruit. 

I think the organization itself needs to work on transparency and vision and direction and communicating that back to its stakeholders, and really being an asset, learning how to be an asset and to be a value to members and membership organizations.  

Rowing News: If diversity is a low hanging fruit, why have past diversity efforts failed to accomplish any real change?

Kraus: I dont know that I can answer that question. I could take guesses. I haven’t been there. I think it is one thing to want to diversify a boathouse, or a club, a program, a team, and it’s another thing to actually do the work. All I can say for sure is I know how to do the work. And you have to want it to happen, you have to really want it.

It is more work. You have to find the resources. You have to find the champions behind diversity and inclusion, and I can’t say why it hasn’t happened. I just can say I know how to make it happen, and that’s something I feel really good about. And I think that people are hungry for that, based on the phone calls I’ve been getting at Row New York in the last couple of months, with all the racial justice work, and the Black Lives Matter movement, and from people from all around the country asking what can we do.

So, I think there is an appetite, which is nice, for diversity inclusion. Hopefully, it’s not a moment in time, but I’m excited for that. I’m excited for USRowing to be the go-to place that people call instead of the Row New Yorks, that people will start calling USRowing and say I want to diversify my boathouse, I want to make my program more accessible, and that USRowing will be able to provide answers and guidance and eventually financial support and grants and be able to weave it more into the culture of the organization.    

Rowing News: Finding funding and sponsorships to support the organization has been traditionally difficult. Do you think you can help USRowing find sponsorships, and get financial support outside of what is brought in from the National Rowing Foundation for the national teams?

Kraus: As I said, I have to talk with the stakeholders first before answering that and saying what I have to do, but left to my own devices I would say that generating more revenue is key. I think [USRowing] hasn’t had the resources it’s needed for as long as I have known about the organization. Maybe it had better revenues in years past, I don’t really know. But I do know that’s a big piece right now, how do we work on the income side and generate more revenue?

I think the opportunities I see are for sure national grants. At Row New York, we’ve been mostly limited to New York City-based foundations, but are there foundations that want to support a larger movement, to support rowing, whether it’s outreach rowing or it’s para-rowing, or it’s the national team. I think there could be more government support available right now. They have benefited from VA support, but are there other opportunities.

And then I think there is a huge opportunity for USRowing to start fundraising from individuals, for all of the efforts of the organization, to really start approaching individuals and say, hey, we’re starting a new coaching education program, or we want to expand outreach rowing, or we want to find more support for the national team, and really start a robust fundraising plan. 

And the simple reason that hasn’t worked at USRowing is because there is no development team. So, you can’t do any fundraising if you don’t have that team in place. The sense I’m getting is the board is excited about starting that work.

Rowing News: What do you think is your biggest challenge walking in the door?

Kraus: I think I’m coming from a place where the mission was very pure, and it was very easy to stay focused on it. I think I am walking into a place where there is just going to be competing priorities, from different stakeholders. That’s only natural, people have the things that they care about within the context of rowing. 

And so, I think one challenge I’m going to have is, how do you balance the wants and needs of all of these stakeholders without getting completely pulled into those weeds and losing sight of the big picture, how and when can I put the blinders on and say, Ok, let’s quiet the noise for a minute and make a plan and start to move forward.

Rowing News: What do you see as the least challenging going into a very a critical year?

Kraus: Of course I think most the challenging probably goes without saying and that is we are in a global pandemic. But I’ve been living that at Row New York, so that is not entirely new to me. And I think the least challenging is that when you take out all the noise, and you take out all the competing interests, and maybe some angst, at the end of the day the sport is just overflowing with really competent, really smart driven people.

There is no shortage of really excellent individuals who I think can be allies in running a great organization. Obviously, at the end of the day, I will be the CEO, so it’s not as though I am a team of thousands but, that said, I think so much of the success I have seen at Row New York has been because I know how to lean on other people and bring them on as champions and to say we want to get X, Y, and Z done, can you help.

And rowers, you just have to sort of get them focused in and there is nothing that they can’t do. So, it’s get them in the boat, tell them to start rowing. That’s my take on it.

Rowing News: Can you describe what you mean when you use the word “noise?”

Kraus: Obviously, there are a million opinions out there of what to do with every aspect of this organization, and the sense I am getting is a lot of people feel ownership over it, which can be a good thing because ownership brings along with it care and loyalty and all those good things.

But I think when you have too many cooks in the kitchen, or you are cooking for too long, it can stand in the way of progress. And that to me is noise, when you’re letting all of the feedback and all of the conversions get in the way of, ok what is our plan, and let’s move it forward.

And that’s not to say I don’t think you need to have conversations and get feedback and all those things, but at a certain point you need to focus in and get the work done. 

Rowing News: When do you plan on starting and how long will you be listening, and at what point will you gather everybody around and say I’ve listened, this is what I think, and it is time to make decisions?

Kraus: Listening, because of Covid, I think that’s going to be over Zooms and that will be right away, like first order of business, so I would say three or four weeks of listening and digesting. I think that’s what I will need to sort of see and hear what the themes are. I don’t want to spend six or eight months just taking in feedback. I want to do it in a really deliberate way and then I think I will know enough to start to understand things better in terms of the needs and the wants of the stakeholders. 

Rowing News: Are you nervous? 

Kraus: Yea, of course I’m nervous! How could I not be nervous, I’m getting emails from people saying, ‘all of my hope is in you to change the sport of rowing in the entire country’. That’s just a little bit of pressure. But I also think I am much more excited than nervous. I think I know that I love a challenge, and I know there are good people out there who are going to be helpful so while I am nervous, I am definitely more excited.

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