“HBS was the best way to take the civilian world by storm.”

As only the 245th pilot combat-qualified to fly the B-2 Stealth Bomber, John Speer was part of an elite group that flew the most sophisticated strategic bomber ever built. But in 2011, he had reached “the decision point” of his Air Force career: seek continued advancement in the Air Force or pursue something new. “The B-2 is an amazing aircraft, and I love flying,” John says, “but what I really enjoyed was being engaged in a large organization.” In his role as Wing Executive Officer, he was the “right-hand man” of a one-star general responsible for 4,000 people and more than $44 billion worth of assets. Through observation, he saw “what leaders at his rank did and how decisions in high-stakes environments were made.”

But when he considered his and his family’s future, John wanted to fulfill his leadership ambitions in a civilian role. “For civilian street-cred,” he says, “HBS was the best way to take the civilian world by storm.”

Classes as intense as B-2 flight briefings.

John considered other MBA programs, but HBS stood out “for its emphasis on leadership” which matched his goal of becoming a corporate CEO. “I can tell you the exact moment I made my decision,” says John. “It was during my first on-campus visit. As a B-2 pilot, I had participated in briefings and debriefings before and after every sortie. Believe me, with the kind of life and death stakes involved, you can be sure everyone was engaged. The HBS classroom was the only place where I saw the same kind of intensity. Right then, I knew: this is where I had to be.”

Now that he’s in the school, John acknowledges that the case study method is not easy. “It’s less hard to do it for a few days,” he says, “but when it’s weeks on end – you feel like you’re in an athletic environment. It’s a real challenge. But that’s how I trained for the B-2.”

John’s FIELD 2 experience in Brazil opened up an entirely new challenge as well. His assignment: an online shoe retailer, Dafiti.com, looking for a customer loyalty program appropriate for its national market. “When we began,” says John, “I had no idea how online retail worked.” But after weeks of studying comparable customer loyalty programs in the United States, John and his team thought they had some solid ideas. They were wrong.

“We were way off the mark,” John says. For example, the free returns policy made famous by Zappos proved completely uninteresting to the Brazilians John’s team interviewed on the street. “The real issue was trust,” he says. The team regrouped and came up with an idea that fit what they had learned through interviews. “For Dafiti’s best customers, the top ten percent, let them take home shoes without paying first. That way, the company could take consumer trust out of the equation somewhat.”

“Talking to thirty to forty customers completely changed our minds,” John says. “It was the first time I had ever done anything customer-facing; it meant a new kind of agility for me. As a pilot, I had prided myself that one piece of data could change an entire decision set. In Brazil, I got to see how a similar dynamic translated to business.”

Part of the community

Today John lives in Allston with his family: Nikki Speer, the Senior Development Officer of International Planned Parenthood, and their children, Ramsey (4) and Wolfgang (1). With the kids’ enrollment at the HBS childcare facility on Soldiers Field Park, “it feels like all three of us attend Harvard,” John says. “They’re in preschool just 200 yards from my classroom. It’s fantastic. We all feel more tied to the community.”