On Monday morning, the business owner returned from a long vacation to find his business closed. He was left with a note on the door that read, “This is to inform you that I’ve resigned. You left me to act in your behalf, but you didn’t tell me about these problems. The bills were months behind. Your suppliers were calling because they hadn’t been paid. You left me with several personnel issues that I didn’t have the authority to correct. I tried to deal with these matters responsibly, but they continued to grow. Why in the world would you leave us in such a hostile climate?”Today, many small businesses are experiencing the realities of global competitions. Many companies feel that they must restructure to stay competitive with world markets. After 18 years of managing projects and conducting over 100 organizational evaluations of business organizations, I realize that both large and small organizations struggle in implementing their operations effectively. According to a 2004 Small Business Administration (SBA) study, 580,900 small businesses opened in 2005, and 576,200 closed. The SBA noted that 67 percent of these new companies were able to survive at least 2 years, while 44 percent survived at least 4 years. What can be done to help small businesses achieve more market success? I have seen the benefits of strategic thinking in large successful organizations. Strategic thinking may be what a small business needs to sustain growth. Small businesses that cater to the workforce’s needs in the future workforce will gain a competitive advantage.There are four critical factors that will be discussed for gaining this competitive advantage:(1) inspire vision,(2) define core competencies,(3) apply strategic thinking, and(4) connect with employees.VisionEmployees want to know that their leaders are focused on the future as well as today’s problems. Vision is a key ingredient to keeping businesses on target. James Kouzes and Barry Posner, authors of The Leadership Challenge, conducted research on sixty thousand organizational leaders. They note that highly effective leaders inspire a shared vision: “To enlist people in a vision, leaders must know their constituents and their language. People must believe that leaders understand their needs…”A leader who has a clear vision can assist in guiding his or her organization. Most business leaders are too busy with the current issues of today and find little time for vision building. This leaves workers as well as the organization unfulfilled. Having a shared vision provides the small business a competitive advantage. Some critics will argue that a vision is not critical for small business success. This is simply not the case. Visionaries concentrate on future opportunities, not today’s limitation. Vision relates to the ability to look beyond physical constraints of the natural ream. While other organizations are engaging in trivial matters, an effective small business leader should inspire his workforce with a shared vision, thereby meeting their purposeful living needs.Core CompetenciesLeaders should clarify their core competencies with workers during rapid change. In times of restructuring, an organization should maintain its core functions. On the contrary, large businesses try to compete by quickly extending themselves in the marketplace, thereby becoming “all things to all people.” Their workers become confused because inconsistency and uncertainty exist. Companies find themselves doing things that they are not part of their organizational competencies. This provides a good formula for failure. In an effort to compete with global competition, many organizations downsize or ree-ngineer their processes, but lose their core competencies in the market.C.K. Prahalad, author of Competing for the Future, maintains that senior managers sometimes do not perform their homework in order to compete with the rapid market changes. He notes that restructuring is usually a dead-end initiative; however, re-engineering that eliminates unnecessary work and enhances processes is beneficial because it is directed toward company objectives such as customer satisfaction or total quality initiatives. Therefore, communicating a clear focus on core competencies is a competitive advantage for any business. Understanding a small business’ core competencies is an important element in organizational growth. Leaders then become the instruments to ensure that workers’ assurance.Strategic ThinkingEmployees want to know that their leaders are critically evaluating the market and industry competition. The enormous demographic changes within the 21st century American workforce are creating personnel issues for organizations unwilling to change their paradigms. Exemplary organizations think strategically and operate in duality. Watt Wacker, Jim Taylor, and Howard Means, authors of the Visionary Handbook, admonish that we live in an Age of Possibility where individual are able to claim their own future. They explain, “Fail to build your own future, and someone is going to build one for you….”Most businesses engage in some type of planning; however, few organizations properly engage in strategic thinking. Therefore, this becomes a competitive advantage in the marketplace for small businesses. Strategic thinking is more than meticulous planning in an organization. Strategic thinking consists of two components that are knowledge about the present and foresight about the future. Organizational strategists call this duality. Successful businesses exercise this phenomenon routinely. Most small businesses are concerned about today’s customers or tomorrow’s contracts but have little regard for future consequences. Some of the characteristics of effective strategic thinking include focusing on important issues, maintaining a long-term view, appreciating consequences, and remaining flexible. Strategic planning and vision work together because proper planning provides the basic framework and rationale for determining an organization’s direction while addressing the day-to-day challenges. Therefore, effective organizations go beyond detailed planning into a mode of strategic thinking.Connection with EmployeesEffective organizational leaders understand the important of connecting with a culturally diverse workforce. On numerous occasions, companies sing the praises of new technologies while workers are often devalued in the process. Leaders should see followers as more than mechanical parts for their organizational objectives. Jeffrey Pfeffer, author of the Human Equation, acknowledges that an organization’s success is directly related to its implementation, and this capacity comes from the workers, how they are treated, their skills, and their efforts as it relates to the organization.The Emergent Workforce now crosses gender, age groups, race, and geography. Employers must now deal with four generations in the same workforce for the first time in American history. The leadership style that may be effective for a Baby Boomer employee may fail with a Generation X employee. Some of the cultural changes include the acceptance of downsizing as a part of work life, the traditional family decline, the competitive nature of a global business structure, and the advancement of communication technologies to build person-to-person relationships. Some of these factors have impacted the workers attitude about their job and the quality of life. Today’s employees do not want to be a component in a big machine; they want to be valued because they are more than a physical being. In the quest for profit, many large businesses lose focus on the importance of socio-technical systems.However, small businesses cannot afford this luxury. Large organizations have difficulty adjusting to the personal needs of their employees in a rapid, competitive environment. Cultural and social changes place an additional burden of their flexibility to operate. This is a distinct advantage for a small business owner. Staying connected is critical to this success. Therefore, an effective leader in a small business must maintain a good relationship with his followers to assure credibility with the group.The Path ForwardIn spite of global pressures and front-line competitions, small businesses can achieve a high level of success with the right approach. The 21st century provides a brave, new world of personnel challenges such as virtual organizations, outsourcing, and the financial constraints of declining budgets in many federal agencies. Small business leaders can apply five critical factors that are vision, specific core competencies, goals, strategic thinking, and connection with employees. These problems then become an opportunity for small businesses to level the playing field thereby increasing their success rate. Therefore, these methods provide a logical, practice process for starting, growing, and sustaining a successful small business. Start today and grow your small business!