Conversations with Hakaru Morikawa

By Soong Hung Hao and Julian Rocero

What does it take to close a deal? There’s perhaps no better person to ask than Hakaru Morikawa, Vice President and Head of Industry and Customer Advisory (Presales) at SAP South East Asia, the market leader in enterprise application software. Presiding over the dazzling myriad of software solutions SAP has to offer whilst keeping a watchful eye over the many deals cut out for SAP, Morikawa-san blends the art of consultancy and management. His team comprises specialists who provide their esoteric knowledge on niche industries. Anytime a deal encounters challenges, Morikawa-san will be the fixer to support the sales team and client. Having led top firms in Japan, including prominent tech players, he is a well-connected leader and veteran in tech respected for his limitless energy. Take a deep dive with us, as Morikawa-san shares on a multitude of topics, from leadership to cultural awareness.

Let me begin by illustrating the business context of SAP, to better explain my role. As a software company which provides cloud services to countless industries around the world, the breadth and width involved in our work are immense. Thus, apart from our sales teams who directly facilitate transactions, we also need to have a team of presales consultants whom I lead. Each of these consultants specialises deeply in a niche industry, such as construction, consumer goods, banking, and so on. They are experts on each of our lines of business solution areas and offer expertise in these highly esoteric fields. 

As Head of Presales, I engage with customers very often to discuss our proposed solution strategies, and pitch SAP as the best provider for their needs. Our sales staff often request my help on certain deals, and this takes up the bulk of my time. I have to assign the appropriate resources to each deal as well. I consider who can work best to support the client and these considerations work on a case-by-case basis. So, my role involves a lot of communication, be it with the customer, the sales team, or my presales team.

I am also responsible for monitoring deals after assigning them to my presales team. If a deal is falling through, I will need to step in to think about the next best course of action. This is called a deal review, where I consult with the involved parties to assess both the progress and roadblocks.

Apart from this, as part of a multinational company with headquarters located in Germany, I often liaise with colleagues overseas. That is my life, and I love it.

It is impossible for a single person to understand everything relating to every deal. To deal with this at SAP, we have both specialists and generalists. 

Our sales teams are required to focus on breadth to be able to apply themselves to all kinds of deals, but this might slightly limit their understanding. They act as our generalists and the single point of contact when it comes to the sales interface. Naturally, they need to have a strong sense of ownership when it comes to their customers and domain, and must be strongly driven with a focus on consumer centricity and success.

On the other hand, the presales team (including myself) comprises specialists who prioritise depth. We love to learn new information, and are well-respected for our expert knowledge when it comes to our field of interest. In short, that is the difference between sales and presales. 

One thing that contributes to our competitiveness is the industry knowledge we have accumulated. As a business application vendor, we have an incredible depth of knowledge when it comes to business conversations. In this area, I believe we have a very robust edge over other organisations, one that is unlikely to be matched anytime soon. Because of this, my team is a target for our competitors’ recruiters. This naturally means that our competitors are somewhat aware of how our organisation functions. Yet, I do not see any company successful at replicating our practice within this industry. SAP’s business model is so established and successful, and that is how we have risen and will continue to rise above our competitors.

A deal may fall through for many reasons. SAP is ultimately a software company, and our job during a deal is to use software to identify and remedy our clients’ “pain points”. To do this effectively, we must interact with the right person who can deal with the scale and severity of said pain point. A large strategic pain point might require interacting with senior leadership, while a smaller localised problem might be more effectively solved with middle managers. This is one aspect we typically come across in less-than-optimal deals, but we always find alignment with customers to run the project smoothly.

Thinking about the comparison I drew earlier, the sales team is essentially my customer. I need to establish a good relationship with them, and ensure that my team can integrate themselves into a team led by our sales experts. In this context, my role is also managerial in nature; I must ensure my presales team is cordial and collaborative to enable smooth teamwork for the sales team. Apart from this, I also need to be very proactive. For instance, I often check in with the teams that my presales staff are part of, to monitor their progress and weigh in on tough situations if necessary.

As a leader, I also try to be a motivating figure to my colleagues, particularly in encouraging them to adopt a spirit of lifelong learning. In the face of an ever-evolving industry, we are all learning more every day to remain up-to-date with current affairs.

In Japanese culture, we place great importance on ‘walking the talk’, and being able to roll up your sleeves to get the work done, even if you are a manager by title. As a leader, you should not be comfortably sitting in the office while your team is hard at work. You need to be on the ground and actively participate in meetings as well. This is the basis of SAP’s leadership culture. Even board members play their role very well, and are not held back just because of their seniority. 

The development of leadership skills is a journey which has not been easy. Despite having been in my role for quite some time, I still do not think I have grown to become the best leader I can be yet. Something I am grateful for is that SAP values talented leaders, and has invested greatly in the development of me and my team.

I think what is expected from leaders is changing across the board. In the past, the global state of affairs was not as dynamic, and much more stable. You can be a firm leader, and adopt a top-down, ‘do or die’ approach. This was a typical leadership style in our industry.

In recent times, however, things are changing so rapidly that there can never be a leader who knows everything. It is simply impossible. While it is still essential for leaders to be able to put their foot down and guide the direction of their project, they also need to depend more on their people in the field. These leaders also need to maintain ‘psychological safety’; creating an environment within their organisations where their team is comfortable with telling them ‘no’. 

At the same time, I also recognise that my knowledge is lacking in certain areas, and I am willing to admit this and ask for guidance from my experts. If my direction is vague or impractical, they can advise me on how to improve our existing plans and build upon them using their expertise. 

To be frank, staying on top of a lot of information is tough, and it is quite a headache for me. But, I am constantly changing the way I store and organise information, and it allows me to locate it easier and faster later. I use a variety of methods to optimise information for future references, such as sharing them on Twitter or Linkedin as a reminder to myself. This is especially important, given that I subscribe to many newsletters.

Finding a model that works for me is important, and I try many things to help me better organise and recall information. Whilst it is not perfect, I always make a point to consult the younger tech-savvy generation on how they store information, to better my own system.

Something that worries me is that people over 40, in general, have become resistant to change despite our rapidly evolving world, and are comfortable with the past knowledge that they have gathered. We are currently in the fastest period of change the world has seen in the past 30 years. Of course, looking forward, we are in the slowest period of change for future decades to come. It is easy to become outdated and obsolete; my biggest challenge is to motivate myself, and my team to continue learning.

As a leader, I must have the guts to engage in these conversations and make hard decisions. To me, this is the most difficult part of leadership. Everyone has a family behind them; each one of your staff is someone’s spouse, parent, child, and friend. You never know their background fully, and we need to take that into account. 

But as a leader, I must be crystal clear that my mission is to help my team perform. I am responsible for a very large team that constitutes a large investment from SAP. Naturally, I am expected to achieve maximum performance.

The change was rather challenging, to be honest. I had been working in Japan for almost 30 years, and it had become my comfort zone – I knew everything about it. Having graduated from one of the top universities, I knew at least one person in most large Japanese corporations. After moving to Singapore, I had to start afresh and rebuild my knowledge from scratch.

This was compounded by the fact that I had few local connections. If I wanted to learn more about a Japanese company, it would be easy for me to connect with an old schoolmate over drinks and have a chat.

Even remembering names was a challenge at first. Morikawa, Kobayashi, Suzuki, and Sato, for instance, could be Japanese names that are tough for you to remember. I had to do the same for my team scattered across SEA! As a Japanese person, trying to commit Singaporean, Indonesian, Thai (and more) names to memory was quite difficult.

It was a drastic shift, moving from very familiar to completely foreign territory. Overall, the scale is much bigger as well, and I now need to be familiar with 14 countries instead of just one. But I wanted the challenges that came with this role, and am very happy with it now.

Good communication skills are key. You should be able to approach your customer and quickly establish trust so that they can effectively communicate their pain points to you. You also need to be very curious and show interest when consulting with your clients.

Apart from that, trustworthiness is also very important. Of course, every salesperson has a unique working style. I have noticed that some of my team members may not be the friendliest, but still deliver an excellent end product and can keep a promise. These are the people who are good at gradually building up relationships. In our industry, deals are not one-time relationships, but rather part of a long journey. Little by little, you can increase your connections.

However, at the end of the day, you need not have anything special. Salespeople may look and speak differently, but I believe those are the key features it takes to be good at sales.

As I mentioned, establishing long-lasting working relationships with colleagues across the world is essential. In general, honesty is crucial to developing these relationships. You do not want the relationship to sour after the first interaction, because it is possible that your companies may cross paths again.

This is actually nothing unusual in Japan. Broadly speaking, the Japanese university system develops generalists rather than specialists. A law graduate working in the IT industry is a pretty common sight.

My first employer was Nippon Steel, which was the largest steel manufacturer in Japan at the time. The company began to diversify into the rapidly expanding IT industry, and was thus involved in many acquisition transactions. I was selected to join the legal team because I was young, able to speak English, and had a background in law.

Overall, I studied law without ever having the intention to become a lawyer, but rather out of interest. It was a practical choice that I knew would help me enter competitive roles after graduation. This was also the case for most people in Japan. Less than 10% of Japanese law school graduates actually end up becoming lawyers!

Let me compare it to Singapore’s education system. Here, students are offered a rigorous and strict pathway all the way to higher education, which can be very examination-focused and exhausting. Conversely, Japan is much more relaxed, and to be frank, I just enjoyed my time without learning very much.

I have no regrets about this at all. You can always learn after joining the workforce. I am quite certain that I am learning and studying harder now than I was in high school. Every year, my learning capabilities are improving.

From the very beginning of my life, I was an active kid. I believe this was probably something I inherited from my parents, who were very supportive of my aspirations and personality. After joining Nippon Steel, I noticed many middle-aged colleagues seemed to have lost the vigour I saw in our younger staff, and had become much duller. This is actually because humans used to have a much shorter lifespan, and the effects are seen today as a decline in energy after around 40 years old. However, this does not mean we have to completely give up on learning. In the spirit of lifelong learning, I motivate myself to explore new grounds by thinking ‘perhaps this could be interesting’. This has helped me preserve my inquisitive nature, which I take pride in.

I love learning, and I take that as my personal time. Many colleagues poke fun at how I am constantly online even after working hours, but I am actually just relaxing while watching the educational videos our company provides, such as McKinsey reports or Ted Talks. This is something I truly enjoy, and it helps me constantly strengthen my learning capabilities. Since I take learning as my personal time, I do not really see myself working a lot. I rarely work on weekends, and try to spend time in nature. I love walking with my wife at Labrador Park and enjoy my time outside of the office. Overall, my work-life balance is not bad.

If you are someone who enjoys learning like me, you will easily be able to achieve a career similar to mine. However, the contrary is true as well. If you are someone who rejects change and embraces stability, it will be a nightmare for you.

My biggest highlights were coming to Singapore and joining the SEA team. SAP Japan’s performance has always been excellent, whereas SAP SEA seemed like it had ‘teething’ issues. Many of us saw the potential here, and I truly love the dynamism here. I am very satisfied that I was able to produce results within a year of being here.