How long does it take to get a feel for the atmosphere of a restaurant, grocery store, church, or bank—or business unit of your organization—when you walk through the door? Moments, usually. This intuitive feel may be labeled many things: culture, climate, work environment, expectations, unwritten rules, ambiance, brand, identity. Regardless of what it’s called, it is real, and it affects both how customers feel about doing business with a place and how employees feel about working there.

HR professionals can key into this informal intuition and help create the right organization—that is, an effective and engaging organization that does what is needed—by becoming what we call “capability builders.” In the last 20 years, ...

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