Employee Speak: Sunil Kulkarni, COO, Akshayini Oorja

A brief on Sunil Kulkarni: Sunil Kulkarni has a bachelors’ degree in Mechanical Engineering from IIT Mumbai. He has an extensive ‘Power Sector’ experience that spans a period of about 26 years primarily in the hydro sector. He has spent about 13 years with BHEL, 11 years with Tata Power and 1.5 years with Reliance Power. Apart from the technical expertise in hydro power domain, Sunil has had opportunities to develop keen insights into project management. He is currently looking forward to putting his expertise and insights in to the development of a healthy small hydro sector.

1. Can you explain Akshayini Oorja’s unique business model for the benefit of our readers.

With the increased awareness about environmental issues and growing energy needs of large populace, Renewable Energy Sources are receiving additional attention. Governments are increasingly offering incentives in the form of subsidies and assured purchase at reasonable rates. Carbon credits are also available to many of these projects under emission control regime. This has de-risked the business to a considerable extent and hence has generated a lot of investor interest. In spite of this, you do not see many projects coming up. This is mainly because of the lack of proper technical expertise, project management skills and inadequate financial resources. This opens up a good window of opportunity.

To capitalise on this opportunity, India Value Fund (IVF) has formed the company Akshayini Oorja recently to manage (by providing technical, project management and financial expertise) their investments in renewable energy sector, with primary focus on small hydro power projects. We look forward to building a portfolio of about 300 MW in a period of 3 to 4 years.

2. Akshayini Oorja is about to invest in the first hydro power company. Apart from acquiring hydro power companies what would your focus areas for the coming year be?

Now we are in the start up phase. So our main focus areas apart from the core business activities would be to establish the company in the true sense. So we would invest in building the team, setting up processes, developing the competencies of the team etc.

3. According to you will performance management of the organization be a challenge for your kind of set up? In what way will it be a challenge?

This is a start up with a difference. The team has no entrepreneurial stake in the business. A professional team would be meeting the entrepreneurial ambitions of IVF. Recruiting the right people, getting them to work together and leveraging their expertise and experience to meet the business goals are the challenges in the first year. In the first year building a strong team will be important.

4. How are the performance parameters different in the kind of business model that you have as compared to other types of organisations?

The parameters will be more related to desirable behaviour patterns like team spirit, integrity, holistic thinking, leadership etc. Things like domain specific skill excellence will come later. Encouraging cross functional skills will be an important parameter. Everybody needs to understand what the other person is doing, so that he/she can support and stand in for his/her team members when the need arises. Team performance will matter more than individual excellence.

Performance management has to be informal initially. Later the companies in which we have invested can replicate our model in them. Ultimately their performance will be a critical parameter for assessing our performance.

5. I know it is early days; but what are some of the mechanisms you are planning to put in place to ensure you achieve your organisation vision?

We are defining processes in HR, Finance and Project management with help of experts in these areas. When the full team is on board, all the relevant structure would already be in place. This will help us ramp up quickly.

In the initial days informality would be the key. Maintaining the cordial environment for the team to coalesce as one unit and each member to find his/her slot itself would be good Performance Management. Pre-defined KRAs and evaluations based on them will be counterproductive in the beginning. It may even generate performance anxiety.

6. What according to you are the characteristics of high-performance teams / individuals?

While the usual ‘Never say die’ attitude etc is important, there are a few characteristics of high performing teams that are not talked about. One is diversity in the team, not only in terms of skill sets, but also in terms of temperaments. In a team everybody can’t be a Virendra Sehwag, Rahul Dravids are also required and one person cannot be the match winner always. So while somebody could be of a brooding nature, another could be bubbly. Essentially they should be able to support and complement each other. The second characteristic is the basic cross functional appreciation that team members develop across functions. Sehwag knows what Bhajji does and understands Bhajji’s value for the team.

7. Based on your experience how can organisations and leaders encourage and support high performance among teams and individuals?

Every organisation and leader do encourage and support high performance. Some over do it, some under do it. There are various ways…

  • The key is to having at most transparency in the process of measuring the performances.
  • Non monetary avenues can work well. It could be a mention in an assembly, nominations for conferences, exhibitions etc.
  • Special Reward and Recognitions programs for both individual and team performances were developed by HR in one of my previous organisations. That was received extremely well.
  • Delink the process of reward from annual increments, bonus etc. According to me this creates unnecessary division in the team.
  • Fast track schemes where talented people get higher responsibilities and rise faster in the organisation, can motivate higher performance in the individual.
  • Job rotation also helps in acquiring the cross functional appreciation and acts as a motivator. Cement industry is a good example of this where an engineer works in all important departments in the span of 10-15 years and understands his strengths to choose the right career path at senior levels.
  • Performance Management System should not just be a measurement process. One needs to go beyond it and actually focus on managing and improving performance.
  • We need to adapt Performance Management Systems to the nuances specific to the sectors and industries. For example, the Performance Management System mostly designed for FMCG or Software industries are imposed on the hapless people in the power sector where output is difficult to quantify. Smart people always develop a method to cheat the system and sincere ones can get deterred from taking on challenging goals.
  • Getting the ownership, of the people running the business, for the Performance Management is very important.
  • One also needs to nurture diversity in the team.

Are you an Effective Appraiser? : Activity Corner; V4 Issue 1

A Performance Appraisal discussion is not only a tool to measure performance; it can also be a tool to motivate your team member. For this one must conduct the performance appraisal meeting effectively. To know the effectiveness of the appraisal meetings conducted by you as an appraiser respond with a ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ to the following questions.


Scoring direction to "Are you an effective Appraiser?"

Count the number of questions that you have responded with a ‘Yes’. The higher the number of ‘Yes’s, the more effective you are as an appraiser. Treat the questions as a checklist of “Best practices for Appraisers”. You can go through this checklist every time you conduct an appraisal and over a period of time focus on converting all the ‘No’s to ‘Yes’s. 

All the best!

The GOAL (A Process of Ongoing Improvement)

Title: The GOAL (A Process of Ongoing Improvement)
Author: Eliyahu M Goldratt and Jeff Cox
Publication details: First Indian edition, 2004, Productivity and Quality Publishing Private Limited
Number of pages: 396 pages

Is increase in efficiency and cutting costs good? Not always as the book ‘The Goal’ demonstrates while revisiting some basic management fundamentals. It reveals how businesses can enhance productivity by applying the Theory of Constraints (TOC). Written in a fast-paced thriller style (I could not put it down), ‘The Goal’ is a gripping novel about Alex Rogo a plant manager who is desperately trying to save his plant and his marriage. A chance meeting with his old professor Jonah helps him turn the plant around by breaking out of conventional thinking like optimising resources or focusing on worker efficiency. The book shows how a system of local optimums is not optimum system at all. And yes his marriage is saved too

Eliyahu Goldratt uses Socratic questions, an inductive reasoning approach to teach TOC. Alex finds the path to plant profitability by responding to questions asked by Jonah. The story’s pace gives the reader time to examine the issues and come up with ideas before sample answers are provided. Jonah helps Alex understand that the goal of a plant is not to increase efficiency, reduce wage etc but to make money by balancing 3 critical areas of a plant’s operations viz., Throughput (the rate at which the system generates money through sales), Inventory (all the money that the system has invested in purchasing things which it intends to sell) and Operational Expense (all the money the system spends in order to turn inventory into throughput).

The book shows that a manager should be able to answer 3 important questions for an ongoing process improvement viz.,1)What to change?, 2)What to change to? and 3)How to cause the change? The economic concepts are easy to understand on account of the way they are presented. For instance manufacturing bottlenecks which determine the rate of production, can be identified by looking for a big stack of products waiting to be processed. This is illustrated through a hiking trip that Alex takes with his son and a game with match sticks and bowls. The slowest boy in the middle of the line of children hiking who is delaying others’ progress is a bottleneck. Alex’s discussions with his team also highlight the short comings of cost-accounting where inventory is viewed as an asset on the balance sheet.

The book shows numerous times how constraints can be dealt with by following 5 steps of 1) Identifying the constraint, 2) Exploiting the constraint (bottleneck), 3) Subordinating everything to the constraint, 4) Elevating ie., increasing the throughput of the constraints no matter the costs since they limit the entire system’s throughput and 5) Repeating the steps with new constraints. Step 2 could be as simple as maximizing a bottleneck machine’s output by not keeping it idle because of staff taking lunch breaks or doing a quality check before products get processed through the bottleneck machine. The book has several management techniques that can be applied to any business. For instance to communicate to everybody in the plant which parts need to be processed on priority the parts are tagged with different colours or clinching a large order customer order by reducing delivery time vis-a-vis competitors and meeting the order by despatching batches.

Since the book provides a solution for factories struggling with production delays and low revenues is it relevant for service organisations? (Hmm... have been hit by the Socratic bug!) Consider these applications of TOC. A US Bank reduced their loan approval time almost half by focusing on the 3 most important items. A South African hospital decreased patient waiting list from 9 months to below 4months by creating a patient buffer. Though the book was originally published 25 years ago the revised versions contains, in an interview with Eliyahu Goldratt himself, recent examples of organisations that prove the relevance of TOC for today’s context. This is definitely a must read management classic for all managers.

Being a Star at the Workplace : Feature Article; V4 Issue 1

I think we all want to be stars and enjoy the limelight. One place we can be a star is at our workplace. I watched a movie last week and was in no doubt that what I had witnessed was some exemplary performance by the lead actor. I did not need a film critic or my friends who had also seen the movie to tell me that. That’s how superb acting is - easy to tell. How about superb performance at the workplace? Do we know when we see it? Perhaps, not so easily!

Signs of star performance

Who is a star performer at the workplace? Is it the person who contributes the most in a team or the person team members turn to for help? Let’s look at some tests we can run to find out.

Once I had a consultant, let’s call him Suhas, whose work I was very happy with. When I mentioned this to Suhas’ manager he said it was only expected because Suhas was a high performer. Later when I had some other consultants from the same firm working for us, they mentioned how much they admired Suhas and his work. I did not know it then, but what I had experienced was a star performer in action at the workplace. So, the first test is whether you are considered an excellent performer not only by your manager, but also by your peers and customers. I like to call this the ‘Acceptance by all test’. This test’s beauty is that it rules out those high producers whose tactics are such that while producing they harm the organization/team, thus negating any positive contribution that they make.

The second test is whether the person consistently exceeds expectations ie., not only exceeds expectations in one project or in a quarter but in all projects and in every quarter. This is the ‘Consistency test'. It helps rule out people who hit a century in a match but fail to accumulate a high average of runs. Indications? - Numerous and not one off awards, honors, performance bonuses, patents, publication credits etc.

The final test is the ‘Productivity test’. It is not about whether he/she dreams, talks or plans well but whether he/she actually produces a lot compared to his peers. Is his/her contribution towards the organization and team’s success substantial? Simply put, does he/she make a mark?

I think we can safely say that if a person passes all of the above tests he/she be considered a star. However what makes stars shine brighter than others. Are they smarter? Do they relate to people better? Apparently it’s none of these.

Strategies for consistently delivering a stellar performance

Robert Kelley, a Carnegie Mellon professor has written a book called ‘How to be a Star at Work: Nine Breakthrough Strategies You Need to Succeed’. It is the result of 10 years of scientific investigation at companies like 3M and AT&T. Kelley examined how stars operate, searching for some differentiating factor between the ‘average’ worker and the ‘star’. His surprising conclusion was that there is no difference with regard to cognitive factors (IQ, creativity), personality (self-confidence, ambition) and social factors (interpersonal skills, leadership). Stars are just like you or me, but they use certain work strategies that can be learned.

Here are the strategies that Kelley identified. While at a glance some of the strategies may seem commonplace, a star’s approach to them is different.

In addition to these I would say the following strategies will also help.

  1. Initiative: Average performers think initiative is doing one’s job well by figuring out better ways to do it, like using a tape recorder to take down a meeting’s minutes. For stars however that is not initiative but doing one’s job. For them Kelley says initiative means doing something above and beyond your job description, helping other people, taking some amount of calculated risks and seeing an activity through to completion. So, before you take on anything new, make sure that you're doing your assigned job well. Social initiatives like organizing the company picnic cannot be considered initiative. The initiatives that matter to your career are those that promote the company's core mission.
  2. Networking: Stars use networks to multiply their productivity. They figure out who can supply what ‘they don't know but need to know’ and cultivate relationships with those people. Stars’ approach to networking is different from average performers. They don’t consider the help their network can extend as their right and call someone they don't know well and simply demand help. Instead they help out a lot of people before asking anyone for help in return. For this you have to have expertise that people need but don't already have and be patient.
  3. Self Management: While average performers see self-management as time management, stars see it as managing not only one’s work but also one’s relationships with people and ones’ career over time. The average performer after finishing a project go to the boss and ask, "What do you want me to do next?" .The star starts looking around six months before a project is done and asks, " What assignment should I tackle next that would make me more valuable for the company/in the marketplace?" Stars select their next project before they finish the current one and then try to bag the ‘identified’ assignment. To manage yourself better, understand the company goals and align yourself with its core business, so that you contribute more directly to its larger purpose. You can’t become a star by changing who you are. So turn ‘how you work’ into an advantage. Continuously learn and never think you ‘know it all’. Stars recognize the value of seeking out strong mentors and peers. They are not afraid to ask for help and guidance.
  4. Organisation savvy: This means knowing whom to trust, whom to avoid, who make things happen in the organization and knowing how to navigate all of the competing interests within the organization. It means paying attention to conflicts. You can develop organization savvy by keeping your eyes open to what goes on in the organisation. Observe the stars and learn what works and what doesn't work in your environment.
  5. Getting the big picture: Average performers see the world only from their viewpoint. Star performers see things in a much bigger way. They adopt different perspectives that of competitors, customers, colleagues and boss etc. Though perspective comes partly from experience, it's something you can work on. After each project, ask yourself “What did I learn?” .Then seek out an assignment that will give you a different kind of experience - even if conventional wisdom says it's not a high profile job. Take process administration. People don't like to do it, because it's kind of boring. You are maintaining existing processes and not creating anything new. Most average performers think of it as drudgery that won't help them get ahead. But lots of stars do their time in process administration. It gives them a chance to see a lot of processes. They can apply the learning to create new and improved processes in the future.
  6. Followership: Followership means knowing that everyone can't always lead and that one has to help those in charge to do the best they can. If they think the leader is going off in the wrong direction, they know how to disagree without being disagreeable and without undermining the leader's authority with the team. To be a good follower, focus on the project's needs and on the leader's needs. Don't try to score a brownie point for yourself, instead try to make wins happen for the team. Also, being a good follower means figuring out what to do before being told, finding out how to do as much as you can without bothering your boss etc.
  7. Small ‘l’ leadership: This type of leadership is not about having a big vision or a charismatic personality but about the ability to bring people together to get things done. They do this by being knowledgeable, creating momentum, bringing energy to the job, creating energy in other people and paying attention to everyone who's involved. To be a small-l leader, start by understanding the people who are following you. Then do everything possible to build momentum. Make sure that meetings get called, that the agenda gets set, and that things don't slip through the cracks.
  8. Communication: Stars don’t over communicate, they communicate thoughtfully. They understand how powerful words can be. They know how to use the right message with the right audience at the right time. They do this by understanding the audience and using the language which will move them. Average performers don't listen well. As a result, they miss necessary insights on the business and about their own effectiveness which stars don’t.
  9. Team work: Stars look at teams differently from others. They say, "I've got only so much time. Do I absolutely need this team - or does this team absolutely need me - to make something important happen?" And once stars are on a team, they become very good team players- making sure that everyone on the team knows and buys into its goals, that the work gets distributed in a way that makes sense and that's fair to everyone, that the team actually gets the job done.
  10. Doing what you love: You can do a job well when you like what you are doing. Of course it may not be always possible due to economic considerations. How about then taking up something close to what you would love to do. Say you love to paint, but can’t make enough money out of it. Then try finding a job which gives you an opportunity to be creative.
  11. Putting in10,000 hours: Malcom Gladwell in his book ‘Outliers, The story of Success’ examined what the stars in business, science , sports and music have in common. His discovery? Every one of them had put in 10,000 hours of practice as compared to their peers who had the same talent as them. This means the more you do something, the better the chances of achieving extraordinary results in it.


And if you think implementing all the above strategies requires too much effort, then just consider the rewards enjoyed typically by star performers in organizations.

  • Others’ admiration: While the pride of doing a job well and better than others is rewarding in itself admiration from others is always welcome. Family is proud of the ‘Well done’ plaque displayed at home. Friends rejoice at your achievements.
  • Job security: Research shows that people at the top of any profession will always have a well-paying, secure job.
  • Monetary benefits: Stars get rewarded with higher performance bonus, higher salary increments associated with increase in responsibility levels etc.
  • Self confidence: Being patted on the back increases one’s confidence in one’s abilities. Ever felt self confident about something and experienced a sense of well being. Imagine feeling that most of the times at the workplace.
  • High work engagement: You won’t hear an “I don’t know what I am doing with my life,” complaint from stars. While they may not have a plan for the future, the stars usually feel they are in the right place just now.
  • More control: The stars enjoy more discretion in choosing their work. They get to pick the best projects, locations, departments and team members.


Now tell me who doesn’t want to be a star performer at the workplace? There is a star in each one of you. Make it shine!


  Kelley , R. E, ‘How to Be a Star at Work: Nine Breakthrough Strategies You Need to Succeed’,Times Books, 1998

  Webber, A, M, ‘Are You a Star at Work?’, Dec 18, 2007

  Raffoni ,M,‘Three Questions Executives Should Ask for the New Year’, January 4, 2010

  Gladwell , M,‘Outliers: The story of success’,2008,Penguin Group