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Q&A With USRowing Chairman of the Board of Directors Nobuhisa Ishizuka

BY LUKE REYNOLDS
PHOTOS BY SPORTGRAPHICS

Nobuhisa Ishizuka, newly-elected Chairman of the USRowing Board of Directors, attorney, and lifelong rower took some time this week to answer a few questions about his experience as an athlete and how he hopes to impact the board in the coming year.

RN: Can you tell me a little bit about your background? Both rowing specific and general background. 

Ishizuka: I have been involved in rowing since 1978, starting with the lightweight program at Columbia and continuing with masters rowing at the New York Athletic Club in the early 1990s. I moved to Asia in 1999 and remained a competitive masters rower, promoting international exchange in the sport as a member of rowing clubs in Hong Kong and Tokyo, helping to organize club participation in regattas from Australia to the U.S. and Europe, and hosting numerous overseas rowers in Tokyo.  I have been on the USRowing Board since returning to the U.S. in 2018, and formerly chaired the Ethics and Governance Committee. 

In my professional life, I was a partner at Skadden, Arps for 18 years, where I advised boards, CEOs, and senior management of multinational corporations on major transactions and disputes. After retiring from active law practice at the end of 2017 after 31 years, I accepted an appointment as an officer and lecturer at Columbia Law School, where I direct a research center and teach international comparative law and legal history.  In addition to my professional experience, I have been actively involved with non-profit organizations such as the Boards of Visitors of Columbia College and Columbia Law School and on the advisory boards of various organizations, serving on a number of committees focused on governance reforms, strategic planning, and fiscal development. 

RN: How long have you been involved with USRowing?

Ishizuka: I have been a member of USRowing for over 25 years and am a lifetime member. 

RN: How has your undergraduate rowing experience affected your career as an attorney?

Ishizuka: I am not sure that my undergraduate rowing experience translated directly to my career as an attorney.  Of course, the values of discipline, hard work, and teamwork are relevant and are cited a lot by others as positive influences.  For me, the rowing experience put things into a certain perspective that was helpful in a more indirect way.  Such as being honest with myself about certain things, like my limits, being smart about good health, the importance of taking care of oneself, and knowing when to back off.  

“For me, the rowing experience put things into a certain perspective that was helpful in a more indirect way.  Such as being honest with myself about certain things, like my limits, being smart about good health, the importance of taking care of oneself, and knowing when to back off.”

– Nobuhisa Ishizuka

RN: With the lightweight rowing community experiencing a tremendous amount of change (both positive and negative) in the past few years, do you have any hopes or expectations for the future of the class of rowing?

Ishizuka: I think there is a place for lightweight rowing within the sport.  I’m aware of the arguments about safety, which are credible particularly at the junior level, and performance––particularly at the elite level––about which reasonable people can disagree.  From a broader perspective, there are large parts of the world where lightweight rowing provides opportunities to compete that otherwise wouldn’t exist at all levels of the sport, which I believe is a positive thing.  So I do hope it can be retained.  

RN: What are your goals both immediate and long-term for the board?

Ishizuka: USRowing faced a number of very significant challenges over the past year and the board was able to address them in a thorough and thoughtful manner.  Notwithstanding the progress we’ve made, there are three interrelated areas, in particular, I believe the Board should focus on to manage change more effectively and build a strong foundation for the future. 

First, I’d like the Board to adopt a more strategic mindset toward the organization’s long-term goals.  To do so, it has to inspire confidence that it, in collaboration with the CEO, has a clear vision for the direction of the organization and the discipline to adhere to it. It also needs to develop a style of organizational leadership that resists a tendency to react to individual events in a patchwork manner. 

Second, I’d like the Board to clearly project its expectations for achieving the vision in a consistent, proactive and outwardly visible manner to the organization’s constituents. Nothing improves the credibility of an organization more than its leadership displaying consistency of action, a proactive commitment to improvement, and delivery on promises. Over time, shortfalls in these areas have the cumulative effect of undermining the credibility of the Board.

Finally, I’d like to guide and manage the Board toward a clearer view of its role and responsibilities. The board’s duty is to serve the interests of the organization and all of its constituencies as a whole. 

RN: What made you want to lead the board of directors?

Ishizuka: I felt my experience with professionally managed boards, management, and staff offered perspectives that could be valuable. I believe USRowing can fulfill its vision as an organization that cultivates excellence while strengthening its role as the steward of a uniquely passionate community. The most valuable contribution I believed I could make was to support positive and forward-looking organizational change that places USRowing at the forefront of NGBs within the Olympic movement in the United States.  

RN: Can you give us an overview of the status of USRowing as it begins the final push for the Olympics with a new CEO while still dealing with the effects of the pandemic?

Ishizuka: A CEO transition is always challenging but brings a number of rewards.  There is a significant bump of optimism, energy, and fresh thinking that invigorates an organization.  Amanda Kraus brings all of this and more to the table, together with a deep reservoir of goodwill and a strong work ethic.  This positions us really well to focus our efforts on new initiatives from the grassroots to the elite level as we start emerging from the pandemic.  As for the Olympics, the athletes are maintaining their incredible focus on bringing out their best performance every single day, which inspires and humbles us all.  And the management team is working incredibly hard to support them in every way they can.

RN: Do you have a favorite rowing memory you’d like to share? 

Ishizuka: Every day on the water, with the sun rising and the wind on my face, is a favorite memory. 

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