A reflection on a focus group’s ideas for improving coaching and mentoring in Malaysia

I had the good fortune of participating in a focus group on Coaching and Mentoring by HRDC in December last year. It was a well-organised event, and it was engaging to be in a room with perhaps 40 other experienced L&D professionals representing a wide range of organisations.

A few weeks after the event, I put down some thoughts for the organisers. A colleague later suggested that I publish them. So here they are, with the hope that they might stimulate more ideas on how HRDC, contributing organisations and training/coaching professionals can work better together to build a stronger workforce in Malaysia.

(Edited from the original document for typos, grammar and clarity.)

Treat these ideas as coming from someone who is inexperienced in how government bodies run, so feel free to disregard those that are impractical. Or, put another way, you can treat them as ‘the voice of a customer’ – a training provider who appreciates HRDC’s lofty mission and empathises with the challenges it faces.

Avoid Bureaucracy Creep

We (the focus group participants) talked about various types of coaching, mentoring and facilitation processes. The categories within and between each of these three processes were confusing even to most professionals in the room. There is a continuum that runs through individual coaching, group coaching, group facilitation, classroom facilitation and training. It’s probably best for all parties, including HRDC personnel, to avoid splitting hairs over types of interventions and which providers are qualified to carry them out.


Limit accreditations to several broad categories like ‘Coach’ and ‘Trainer’. Don’t bother about levels like ‘Master Coach’, ‘Master Trainer’, etc.

Publish a list of certifying/accrediting bodies – local and international – that is regularly updated. From that list, you can eventually evolve a set of criteria. Once developed, publish it because transparency builds trust. However, keep in mind that the L&D field is broad, continually evolving, and there are various accreditations that can aid in developing our Malaysian workforce, such as Neuro-Linguistic Programming, Clean Language, Timeline Therapy, etc.” Some of these are snake-oil solutions, some are cutting-edge, and a whole bunch are experimental but valid. When in doubt, give a temporary recognition and ask for client evaluations.

Mentoring, on the other hand, is driven by expertise and/or experience, so forcing mentors to get an accreditation will probably lead to some pushback. For example, if someone is a retired CEO who is engaged to mentor an SME, why would he/she need to be certified? If HRDC feels the need to certify mentors, run a simple one-day or two-day programme on the basics of mentoring or on the kinds of reports HRDC might want to see.

To improve the quality of trainers, coaches and mentors, model other professional bodies by introducing a requirement for CPE (Continuing Professional Education) credits.

Simplify the fee structure

There were suggestions in the room to implement a fee structure that is linked to the qualification of the coach or the seniority of the coachee. There are problems with both of these suggestions:

Coaches: The requirements to certify a Coach or Master Coach varies according to the certifying body. Becoming an ICF Coach might be more demanding than becoming a Master Coach in another body. It’s best for HRDC to avoid trying to figure how to set standards because different bodies have different standards based on underlying values and philosophies that might be equally valid.

Coachees: The seniority of coachees cannot be judged by their job titles. For example, a ‘VP’ in a bank is sometimes a first-level manager while a ‘Team Lead’ in some big tech companies might be technical expert leading multimillion Ringgit projects. Similarly, the job of a ‘CEO’ of a 10-person company will probably be much less complex than that of a ‘Plant Manager’ of a cement plant. Titles often don’t say much about seniority and job scope.

Proposal: Let the market decide. If an organisation wants to hire a training provider at RM10,000/day or a coach for RM3000/hour, that’s its prerogative. HRDC should trust leaders to do what’s best for their organisations. If HRDC’s concern is that companies spend too much of their L&D budget on top management and too little on other employees, see ‘Awards’ below for how to overcome this. Similarly, HRDC should not impose a ceiling on manual prices because some providers invest significantly in R&D. For example, we have a team, led by a PhD, that is researching and developing AI applications in L&D.

During the focus group session, I had proposed increasing the budget for coaching from 10% to 20%. My Post-It note on the wall received a generous share of the votes – it was a popular idea (naturally so, with a room full of coaches). However, on further reflection I think HRDC should keep to 10% in order to have a fairer distribution of funds for the lower ranks in the organisation. This limit could be waived for award winners, as the award criteria ensure that most employees receive training. (See below)

Let the market evolve its ecosystem

The above proposal to “let the market decide” could lead to a few problems. There are three that stand out for me:

  1. Providers charging high fees but delivering low-quality services.

Proposal: Be patient. Educate the market, especially HRDC’s SME contributors who are often not sophisticated enough to tell the difference between competent and subpar service providers. Over time, the latter will be forced to lower their fees or exit the profession altogether.

Create a Complaints Bureau and a Disciplinary Panel, similar to those in the legal and health professions, where HRDC’s contributors can lodge complaints. Suspend providers when necessary. This will probably make many of the remaining low-quality providers upgrade their services. In fact, the creation a Disciplinary Panel will, in itself, motivate better performance.

  1. Providers charging high fees and then giving kickbacks to decision-makers.

Proposal: Offer a reward to whistle-blowers and involve the MACC if necessary. Convicted providers could be suspended or ‘disbarred’ from practising.

  1. Companies spending most of their funds on leaders and managers, with very little going to the rest of their workforce.

Proposal: See next section.

Become a catalyst for better EVPs

HRDC has long been perceived by contributing organisations as an enforcer rather than a supporter of L&D efforts. I believe there is an opportunity to shift this perception from enforcer to catalyst, i.e. an EVP (Employee Value Proposition) catalyst. If this shift happens, the quantity and quality of training in Malaysia will increase organically.

For this shift to happen, HRDC should channel more effort towards creating healthy competition among employers to become ‘talent magnets’. Contributing organisations will then stop thinking about “how to get back all of our contributions” and instead think of “how to use HRDC to signal that we invest in our people”.

Proposal: Introduce a ‘Talent Developer’ recognition programme. In this programme, contributing organisations are awarded Bronze, Silver, Gold or Platinum awards, based on specific criteria. For example:

  • Bronze:
    • No layoffs in the previous 24 months.
    • 80% of their Malaysian employees are given at least two days of training in a calendar year.
    • 5% of annual salaries are utilised for HRD. (1% is HRDC’s minimum. It’s a baseline. To win an award, companies must do more than just the baseline.)
  • Silver: Same as above, but with 2% of salaries for HRD
  • Gold: … 3% of salaries
  • Platinum: … 4% of salaries

Transparency and clarity: The above criteria are clearly defined and transparent. Transparency in the award process is crucial to ensure fairness.

Assessment: All companies use external auditors for their tax submissions. These auditors can play the role of verifying companies’ HRD expenditure (which is needed because to win awards companies will have to spend more than what they contribute to HRDC). The use of auditors saves HRDC the burden of having to assess thousands of submissions and minimises the falsification of data.

Participation: Participation is voluntary – companies which are not interested in the awards do not have to participate. The better ones will eventually participate once their competitors start receiving publicity for winning HRDC’s Talent Developer Awards.

Publicity: Each year, publicise the award winners in newspapers and social media. This is to attract the attention of potential employees. In the publicity materials, categorise the award winners by industry. This is to create healthy competition between companies within each industry – to attract industry-specific talent as well as for bragging rights. Sometimes, biggest motivator for leadership teams is not profits but beating the competition!

To make the competition even more exciting, advertise the award winners in each state and in Sabah & Sarawak. Companies want to attract from the local talent pool, so beating the local competition is very important.

Optional: If HRDC has the funds, offer a small monetary reward to each award winner, e.g.

  • Gold: RM100/employee
  • Silver: RM75/employee
  • Bronze: RM50/employee

However, this is not really necessary. A well-organised and well-publicised competition will do the trick of motivating employers.

What about impact?

It can be argued that money spent on HRD is less important that the impact of the interventions. Agreed. Well, HRDC already has awards for that, and there are other organisations that confer awards based on impact. All of such awards are resource-intensive, which is why relatively few organisations participate each year. The above Talent Developer Awards are for large-scale implementation across the whole country. The effort needed to participate is minimal. Similarly, the effort needed to judge the winners is also minimal.

Proposal: To measure impact, after a few years, HRDC appoints a credible external party to conduct a study to gauge the overall impact of these awards on investment in employee development at the national level.

A word to the L&D professionals reading this: Treat the above ideas raw material from which some gems might immerge. And please feel free to post your critiques and counter-proposals in the comments section below. After all, we’re in this game together.