Smash-Up: How a Violent Car Crash Provided Lessons in Business Continuity and Succession Planning

Juniper Networks CIO Alan Boehme had a standard business continuity and succession plan, but one violent moment on a California highway revealed its shortcomings.

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That may have been true, but after Boehme’s crash, Juniper’s IT projects didn’t all move forward with the same momentum they had in the past. Juniper employees say this wasn’t due to a lack of leadership at the top; everyone contacted for this article lauded Moquin’s leadership. But they say Boehme’s C-level pull across the organization just couldn’t be replaced, particularly with senior executives. “[Boehme] has relationships and understands the needs of business partners at the senior VP level,” says Nichols. With Boehme out of commission, communication at that level was compromised, Nichols adds.

For example, Juniper was in the process of implementing a new document management system. The decision to begin the project had been made at an executive steering committee meeting that Boehme had attended. After the decision was made to do the upgrade, Boehme placed Nichols in charge of implementing it. Nichols found a company that had the appropriate software and bought the licenses. However, when he began implementing it during Boehme’s absence, a problem arose. One of the user groups didn’t want it, preferring a homegrown system. “We had some pushback,” says Nichols. “I had to fight that battle without Alan and without knowing the context within which the decision was made. Normally, Alan would have taken care of it.”

Without Boehme—and without a subordinate with Boehme’s full authority and knowledge of the situation—a conflict that normally could have been resolved in a few hours took much longer and absorbed more energy than it needed to.

Back to Normal?

Boehme takes the train to work now. His days of driving fast, sporty cars are over. He recently bought a BMW X5, which is “probably the heaviest SUV I could find short of getting a [Chevy] Suburban,” he says. He attends physical therapy sessions two to four days a week. Doctors tell him that his brain injury will take up to 18 months to fully heal. Since the crash, his blood pressure has risen and he now takes medicine for it. He still hurts. He gets tired earlier in the day. “I come home from work and the first thing I do is sit down and rest for 20, 30 minutes before I can continue with my evening,” he says.

Boehme’s injuries kept him out of the office for two and a half months. He admits that when someone misses that much time, it’s not like coming back after a vacation. It’s disorienting. In fact, he spent a lot of time planning his reentry with Moquin, COO Stephen Elop (to whom Boehme reports) and with Juniper’s HR department. Boehme says he couldn’t pick up where he had left off. “It wasn’t like all of a sudden, I’m back,” he says.

Succession planning, however, has risen on the list of Boehme’s business continuity priorities. He says he has nearly 45 people working on the new PeopleSoft HR system. It will include areas that log employee history to help Juniper executives and managers make a more comprehensive succession plan, from top to bottom and across the whole company.

Other companies seem to be moving in that direction as well. According to Aberdeen, 39 percent of companies report now having a fully or partially automated solution for succession planning. “Although [Juniper’s] was paper-based and it worked, the accident wakes you up to realize that it can be much more efficient if it is systematized,” Boehme says.

Boehme reiterates that Juniper will continue to train workers at all levels in leadership and managerial skills to create a deeper, more agile bench. Analysts on succession planning and human capital suggest mentoring programs that have lower-level technical workers shadow their bosses from time to time and make connections with other leaders in the business. “Establishing political relationships helps grease the wheel,” says Forrester’s Bright. “They’ll have established credibility.” And perhaps that will help avoid situations like the one Nichols found himself in with the engineering group on the document management project.

For now, Boehme is working on regaining his energy while adjusting his schedule. He works at home more. He’s set up a special router in his house that will ensure a secure connection to Juniper’s network. He uses videoconferencing to help communicate with other Juniper sites across the globe. But more time working at home doesn’t mean taking it easy; he says he’s now as busy as ever.

The crash has given Boehme a new understanding of and appreciation for the human side of business continuity planning. “When you think of business continuity and disaster recovery, you tend to think of earthquake and tornadoes and events,” he says. Today, Boehme thinks about what most people don’t want to think about: what can happen to a person in a bad moment.

“We don’t personalize these things,” he says, “because you don’t want to wish what happened to me on anybody.”

Associate Staff Writer C.G. Lynch can be reached at clynch@cio.com.

Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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