The term ‘war for talent was first coined by McKinsey in 1997 to highlight the truism that good people are the foundation of business success (Michaels, Handfield-Jones and Axelrod, 2001).

The phrase inspired a generation of mercenary recruiters. Armed solely with a headset and loud pinstripes, they indiscriminately plundered the ranks of stable companies. Many careers died, and companies suffered.

More than twenty years later, the truism still stands, but no one’s career needs to die. To examine a better way, let’s take the metaphor away from the battlefield and into the goldfields.


Think like a gold miner

If you really want to succeed as a gold miner, you must look for gold in places that your competitors have not looked. You are not going to find the mother lode combing through the mullock heap with everyone else. Likewise, you will have to look where others have not for high-grade talent.


Look deeper

 It’s worth considering the lack of visibility and accessibility of high-grade talent.

Successful people are focused and busy, which means they are rarely looking for jobs, let alone applying to a job posting or divulging their situation to a competitor.

Many make themselves invisible and inaccessible if they can help it. They may appear in conference publications, industry journals or news releases. However, many of them will not build an internet presence unless their work requires it.

Typically, they are heavily guarded and require a peer introduction for access. They then need to be approached with a timely, insightful and compelling proposition.

Many recruiters, particularly internal recruiters, are under enormous pressure to deliver on two metrics: cost and time. Accordingly, they simply do not have the time or the leverage to cultivate an external network and access this hidden market. For this reason, LinkedIn has become very popular, as it provides access to candidates with an online presence outside known networks.

It may surprise many recruiters who rely heavily on LinkedIn that, according to AltoPartners research, less than 40 per cent of mining industry personnel are present on LinkedIn. This figure is based on employees reported in 2018-19 financial year annual reports (excluding contractors) versus total employees listed on LinkedIn company pages. These figures correlate with organisation charts and market maps.

Of those who are present on LinkedIn, only around half are estimated to be active monthly users (Kemp, 2019), meaning that less than 20 per cent of the market will be engaged through LinkedIn by the average recruiter in a typical four week recruitment cycle. Figure 1 highlights a selection of mining companies and the percentage of their full-time employees not on LinkedIn (excluding contractors).

In short, 80 per cent of the talent market remains untapped by many who lack the awareness, time or commitment to search deeper. Herein lies an opportunity for significant competitive advantage.

Figure 1. Selection of mining companies and the percentage of their full-time employees not on LinkedIn (excluding contractors).

Look over the horizon

If you have been in the same industry, region or role for a while, check you have not become the proverbial ‘frog in the well’, who lived its entire life in a deep dark well, assuming it was the whole world. We can be limited by our own experiences: our school, our state and our industry.

Resist the temptation to hire the first candidate who falls into your well. That candidate you fortuitously bumped into at the airport lounge may be a disaster, not destiny.

Get a second option and a second opinion. Discount any confirmation bias and look for any red flags. Effective due diligence now will save you and your company in the future.

Look outside your well. There are some amazing people over the horizon, and they may bring new ideas, perspectives and constructive diversity to the team. They may set higher performance benchmarks than you thought possible.

When it comes to mission critical assignments like building a mine or designing a mill, these clearly require track record and deep domain experience in mining. Every other appointment should be challenged with some lateral thinking.


Look in front of you

Conversely, you may have overlooked the best person sitting right in front of you. The famous saying ‘no prophet is accepted in his hometown’ highlights a limiting belief: we would rather look for our solution elsewhere than receive insights from those familiar to us.

We carry many limiting beliefs in the form of prejudices, assumptions and biases. For example, we may assume wrongly that a particular individual doesn’t have the ability to lead, or to innovate, when they have had no such opportunity to demonstrate their capability. Unfair prejudice may lead you to draw the wrong conclusions of their ability, simply because they have a different background.

These beliefs should be challenged. An objective framework and an external perspective may illuminate hidden talent and unrealised capability in your very own team.

On this point, you may remember the late Sir Arvi Parbo. An Estonian refugee and mature-age student, he rose through the ranks of Western Mining Corporation to become Chairman and Managing Director in just eighteen years.


Look in the mirror

Finally, and most importantly, look in the mirror. Would you want to work for yourself? Are you creating an environment where talent will thrive? It’s no use recruiting high-grade people only to lose them. Exceptional people need a bigger vision, a driving sense of purpose, strategic input and the opportunity to provide dynamic thinking. Furthermore, as with all employees and organisations, to get the best out of your staff you must ensure you have created an environment built on mutual respect and organisational clarity.

In this sort of environment, you will not only attract talent, you will help create it.


AltoPartners provides executive search and leadership advice to boards through 57 offices across 34 countries. Richard Fortune is a Director of AltoPartners Australia, and he is the leader of the firm’s Natural Resources Practice.




  1. Michaels E, Handfield-Jones H and Axelrod B, 2001. The War for Talent (Harvard Business School Press).
  2. Kemp S, 2019. The state of digital in April 2019: all the numbers you need to know [online]. Available from: com/blog/2019/04/the-state-of-digital-in-april-2019-all-the-numbers-you-need-to-know