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A Change in Course

July 24, 2017
Lead Organizations
Russ Sarratt

Jon Katzenbach, author and leading practitioner of organizational strategies, is quoted as saying: “Cultures are easier to tap into than to change. They don’t change very much very fast.”

His viewpoint has completely altered the way I look at organizational culture change.

An analogy that fairly accurately sums up corporate culture is in the comparison of two boats: a brand new ski boat and a massive, well-used tanker. A ski boat is fast, flashy, fun, with clean lines and sleek design that can turn on a dime. A powerful motor enables high rates of speed and the slightest move of the wheel is met with immediate change in course. This is not in the least symbolic of corporate culture.  Rather, corporate culture is a tanker.

A tanker ship is big, powerful, slow, and steady. Its lines are angular; it is designed with utility, rather than aesthetics in mind. Tankers are hard working, quickly showing signs of heavy use. The massive size and weight of the ship create resistance; time and space are required to make a change in direction. Even with its powerful engine, changing the course of a tanker takes planning and forethought—they turn very slowly—bit by bit and degree by degree. Tankers are difficult to drive and certainly not pleasing to the eye, but they get the job done.

If corporate culture is as unwieldy as a well-used tanker, how do we go about transforming them? How do we improve as a team?

Katzenbach’s idea to” tap into” our current culture rather than attempt to change it may offer some much-needed insight.  What would happen if we spent more time looking at what we like about our culture than what we don’t like?  What if we focused on strengths rather than weaknesses?  By focusing on the good in our current culture, would we find the areas of weakness being strengthened and strengths being better utilized?

Katzenbach offers a “critical few” areas that will enable a change in course toward a better corporate culture:

  • Target a few key behaviors. It is difficult to turn a tanker. Rather than trying to make a huge directional shift in your existing culture, pick a couple areas where improvement is needed.  As you focus on those and begin to see a positive shift, choose a couple more areas on which to concentrate.  Bit by bit, degree by degree, the culture will change.
  • Find your organization’s emotional energy.  Ascertain where energy is pre-existent; find behaviors, initiatives, or areas of excitement and tap into them. Leverage the present enthusiasm toward future growth. A new leader, a new program, a new focus—any and all of these can be a catalyst for the energy required to turn that tanker.
  • Leverage informal leaders.  Look for those key, team members within your organization who exhibit the qualities of the desired culture change. Leadership is not necessarily conveyed by title; every organization contains front-line team members who carry a great deal of relational influence among their peers. Find those informal leaders who display the desired traits and tap into their peer influence. These team members are the key players as you chart a new course and turn your tanker in a new direction.


Culture can change; in actuality, it is continually changing, bit by bit, day by day.  It is imperative to be intentional about charting a course and guiding the inevitable changes toward a desired destination. Ask yourself how you can leverage what is good about your team or organization into a culture shift?  How might focusing on your strengths actually lead to the change you want to see?

Captain your tanker ship well. Make sure you know where you want the ship to go and be both diligent and patient as you change course.