Past and Present
For Tim Sullivan (MBA 1991), the case method was the perfect way to learn.
Sullivan, who is president and CEO of Ancestry.com—the world’s largest online family-history resource—has always been committed to learning, no matter what class he took in school or position he held in a company. “I have always tried to assess what kinds of interesting experiences were available to me at any one time,” he observes.
Learning for learning’s sake is a theme in his life. Poor marks in Organizational Behavior, for example, didn’t deter him from a path to leadership. “If there is one thing that I pride myself on actually understanding today, it is organizational behavior. My low grade in OB motivated me to really figure it out, because in my job today, it is far more about aligning incentives and motivating a thousand employees to get it done than it is about my individual contribution.”
But he cites the case method as most influential in his development as a businessperson. “The case method was essentially five laboratories daily in which to think about a problem and its possible solutions and to ultimately act by making decisions based on imperfect information,” he recalls, adding that it was important to keep an open mind and be willing to change one’s opinion.
The kind of decision-making skills and flexibility that Sullivan learned through the case method have served him well. At Ancestry.com, he is faced with situations that test both of these abilities every day. “I’ve always tried to take stock of what opportunities were present in my life, and that’s my style of running the business, too,” he explains. “There is no roadmap for how we’re going to take Ancestry from two million paying subscribers to five million. We currently maintain a phenomenal service, but I know that we won’t be able to market ourselves to double or triple the size we are today: We must continue to create entirely new ways of helping people make genealogical discoveries in order to become even more mainstream and appeal to those who have less time to invest in enjoying this hobby.”
Research supports the claim that interest in who we are, where we come from, and to whom we’re related is an almost completely universal human trait. Ancestry.com banks on this tendency, but takes it a step further. “We’ve transformed something that people have always enjoyed doing but that very few have had the resources or time to pursue,” Sullivan says. ”By leveraging technology, the Internet, and network-effect scale, we’ve sparked mainstream interest in family history by making it accessible to millions of people around the world.”
Sullivan offers some words of wisdom to young businesspeople. “You want to find a company that will help you continue to learn, because I can almost guarantee that 95 percent of HBS’s next graduating class is going to be doing something in 20 years that they never imagined they’d be doing. Life is a series of stages and steps and requires continuous reassessment along the way—and that really is the way to begin and pursue a career.”