by C.G. Lynch

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

Jul 11, 200716 mins
IT LeadershipIT SkillsIT Strategy

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

This past Feb. 2, at 5:15 p.m., Alan Boehme, 47, VP and CIO of Juniper Networks, left his office and climbed into his black 2004 Infiniti G-35. He pulled out of the company parking lot and began the 90-minute drive to his home in Half Moon Bay, a coastal town in Northern California’s San Mateo County. Boehme’s work had been going well. In December, he had completed an ambitious restructuring of the $2.5 billion networking company’s IT infrastructure, globalizing its operations and laying the foundation for its future growth.

Boehme took California Highway 280 to Highway 92, a two-lane road about 10 minutes from his house. A few seconds later, a drunk driver in Boehme’s lane hit him head-on.

Alan Boehme, Juniper Networks
Alan Boehme

“The person in front of me swerved off the road because he saw the guy coming,” Boehme recalls. “The next thing you know, these headlights were coming straight at me. We hit headlight to headlight. I remember thinking, my wife and son are going to lose their husband and father.”

They didn’t. But the aftermath was ugly.

“I felt blood just gushing down my face and I was in a state of panic and shock,” says Boehme. “Somehow, I was able to get the seat belt off, kick the door open. I got out of the car and just started yelling, ‘Help me, help me.’”

Alan Boehme's car crash
Juniper Networks CIO Alan Boehme’s 2004 Infiniti G-35 after the crash.

A person who witnessed the crash helped Boehme to the side of the road. An artery in his nose had been severed and he was bleeding profusely. “I had broken bones in my face, and my nose was turned sideways and crushed,” he says. “I ended up with a contusion of the skull and a fracture at the base of the skull, along with, we found out later, a series of injuries to the left side of my body, including my knee, where there were torn ligaments and a crushed kneecap, as well as a broken finger and torn muscles in the shoulder from the seatbelt.”

Boehme lay on the side of the road as EMTs attended to the drunk driver, believing his stomach wound was more life-threatening than Boehme’s injuries. “I was very upset that here’s this person who for all I knew had ended my life, and at minimum had dramatically impacted my life, and they’re rushing to save him,” he recalls. Feeling cold and abandoned, Boehme asked the man who had stopped to grab his BlackBerry. He called his wife, Alisa , who arrived 20 minutes later with their 11-year-old son, David. They found Boehme lying on the roadside, still waiting to be taken to the hospital.

Later that night, at Stanford Medical Center, doctors monitored what they believed was a fluid leak in Boehme’s brain. They stitched up his face and put IVs in both arms. Boehme drifted off as the painkillers did their work. He awoke Saturday morning to find his BlackBerry by his side.

“I don’t know if my wife picked it up or if they put it on my person,” says Boehme, “but I e-mailed Danny Moquin [his VP of IT operations and infrastructure]: ‘Been in a car accident. You need to take over.’”

The Importance of Succession Planning

What happens when a key player in a company goes down? Who takes over? What effect will replacing an individual have on operations? While most businesses have org charts that map out what to do after disruptions—whether they’re caused by resignation, firing, retirement, sickness, injury or death—these are often crude in format and live in dusty filing cabinets in HR. And because succession planning often falls under the categories of disaster recovery and business continuity, it frequently receives less attention than does preparing for sexier events such as hurricanes, earthquakes and terrorist attacks, even though these are far less likely to occur than, for example, a car accident.

Planning for major catastrophes also emphasizes information systems and the proprietary data within them and all too often gives short shrift to the people who manage it all. “The old question is, ‘What if someone gets hit by a bus?’ Well, we know the answer to that now,” says Moquin, who took over for Boehme during his two-and-a-half-month convalescence.

Your Succession Toolbox

Get help capturing employee skill sets and experience

A 2006 report by Aberdeen Research notes that 62 percent of companies operate their succession planning in a paper-based, spreadsheet format. Prior to CIO Alan Boehme’s car crash, Juniper Networks largely worked on that model. Now, Boehme says he hopes to implement an HR solution from Oracle’s PeopleSoft that will help capture more employee data. Other companies might consider similar systems when forming a comprehensive plan, but Kevin Martin, an Aberdeen analyst, notes that there are very few vendors dedicated solely to developing software for succession planning. However, here’s a list of ERP and Human Capital Management (HCM) software that he says could help:

ERP Solutions

  • Oracle (PeopleSoft)
  • Infor

Human Capital Management Solutions

  • SilkRoad Technology
  • Softscape
  • SuccessFactors
  • Meta4
  • Sapien

—C.G. Lynch

Companies often lack succession plans that reach beyond their C-level officers and their direct reports. In a report by Aberdeen Research, 82 percent of the companies surveyed claimed to have a succession plan for their executives, while only 17 percent did for lower-level workers and just 12 percent for their IT staff. This leaves less-visible (and often younger) employees stepping into managerial roles after a disturbance in the head ranks, often without sufficient training or preparation.

“Ideally, it starts with the C-level and the direct reports, but it can’t just stop at the management level,” says Sam Bright, an analyst at Forrester Research. “There are key people on the technical side that if the company were to lose them, it would have a huge impact on performance.”

Today, after the collision on Highway 92, Boehme and his staff know that no matter an organization’s size or how solid and well thought out its processes, individuals matter.

“Obviously, a well-run corporation isn’t about a single leader,” says Boehme. “But still, what are those unsaid things that a person does or that a person contributes to that are not in the process? Those are the hard things to measure, and those are the hard things to plan for.”

The Pre-Crash Plan

In the year leading up to his crash, succession planning had come up in conversations Boehme had had with his direct reports. They had a plan laid out on spreadsheets. The document, which resembled a standard org chart, lived in HR. It covered Juniper’s C-level officers, IT executive team, and their direct reports—and not much else. This type of succession plan is typical in the majority of America’s top companies, 62 percent of which use the same method, according to the Aberdeen survey. While Juniper’s HR stored résumés on its system as well, Boehme says “you couldn’t just press a button to get what you need.”

The reason Juniper’s plan went no farther was not laziness; it was, says Boehme, time pressure. During his first year and a half as CIO, Boehme restructured Juniper’s operations and infrastructures in Asia, Europe and the U.S.—each with its own networks and systems—and put them all under one umbrella. This was not just about technology for Boehme; it was a managerial challenge. The direct reports he inherited after he came on board in 2005 were, he says, lukewarm about the integration.

“Change is difficult,” Boehme says. “Some people self-selected themselves out of the organization. I literally replaced the entire leadership team of the IT organization, all of my direct reports, with the exception of one.”

As Boehme’s some 300 IT employees and contractors adapted to a lot of change, it was hard for him to focus on a formal succession plan, at least until he conceptualized their new roles and established a new chain of command. “Because we’d just gotten through the restructuring, we’d just started to move to standardizing the job ladders,” he says. “We’d done some of the work, but [at the time of the car crash] it was basically a work in progress.”

Since his return, Boehme has made installing Oracle’s PeopleSoft software, which logs employee data for succession planning, a high priority. However, he says he won’t implement it until Juniper has collected sufficient information about his employees’ skill sets and work histories. Experts say that’s wise. An automated solution of this type is only as good as the information put into it. A lot of companies don’t have enough information about the skill sets, leadership skills and experience levels of their employees to warrant spending on an automated system, notes Kevin Martin, research director of human capital management and analyst at Aberdeen. “The primary reason that companies are still paper-based is that they don’t have the succession planning process nailed down yet,” he says.

3 Key Succession Planning Tips

Expert advice on how to leave your business in a position to move forward when the predictably unpredictable occurs

1. Extend succession plans as far down the chain as possible. When a disruption occurs, “it cascades through the entire organization,” says Kevin Martin, an analyst with Aberdeen Group. “You should be prepared at every level, two to three people deep.”

2. Encourage people to step in for others during vacations. This builds expertise. “It’s like trying to tell if someone can ride a bicycle when you’ve never seen them ride,” says William J. Rothwell, a consultant who deals with HR management and succession planning. “An excellent way to find out is to let them ride the bicycle for short distances.”

3. Assess employee skill sets. This could prevent you from having to go into the market and overpay for talent you might already have in-house. “There are so many skills in demand,” says Sam Bright, an analyst at Forrester Research. “If you have to go outside, you’re going to pay a premium. You need to know what you have in-house.”

—C.G. Lynch The Ripple Effect

In Moquin, Boehme had the benefit of a fairly obvious replacement while he was recovering. As a friend and colleague (they worked together at GE Energy, a $20 billion division of the company that Boehme worked for from 1999 to 2003), Moquin was put in charge of Juniper’s IT operations and infrastructure when he was hired by Boehme in June 2006. “It was pretty clear that Danny was going to be the person we went to,” says Bill Skeet, director of IT communications and Web technology, one of Boehme’s direct reports. “Sometimes, it’s just enough to know that when someone is absent, there is a ‘Number One’ that fills in, taking the Star Trek analogy.”

Approval processes were shifted to Moquin, who began sitting in on the senior leadership meetings that Boehme normally attended. Almost immediately, however, Moquin noticed something obvious but inescapable: His old work didn’t suddenly go away.

“The eye opener was that as I started taking on Alan’s responsibilities, especially his strategic ones, I had to look to my team and start delegating both some of Alan’s work and some of my own,” he says.

The consequences rippled through the entire IT department. And as work was passed down the chain of command, it became clear that simple delegation had its difficulties. For instance, one IT lieutenant, Brian Nichols, senior director of business program management, was charged with overseeing an upgrade to a business process management software project that had hit some snags in Boehme’s absence. But because some of Boehme’s responsibilities had trickled down to him, Nichols found himself with an overflowing plate. Although it would have been desirable for him to pass the BPM project on to one of his reports, he didn’t feel that any of them had sufficient management expertise to handle it on their own. “I had to step in when I would have liked to have delegated,” Nichols recalled.

Nichols now says he recognizes the importance of giving his direct reports the same type of leadership training that he, Moquin and other director-level reports have received. Analysts say this is especially vital in a field like IT, where technical workers usually have the requisite skills to do the job but often lack the necessary managerial expertise. “You need to encourage employee development beneath the managerial ranks,” says Forrester’s Bright. “When attrition occurs, you can’t take the time to catch people up when you have a gaping hole to fill.”

Boehme says that before the accident, Moquin was in the process of laying out a training program for managers and people who aspired to be managers, but “we had been somewhere between the beginning and mid-stages of laying it out.” He adds they plan to continue with the program in the future to develop a deeper bench. “You need it from the bottom up as well,” he says.

Clout That’s Hard to Replace

Moquin says the momentum Boehme had established kept things moving forward after the crash. “Having everyone within the organization focused on the same goal made it easier to carry on,” he says. “There weren’t a bunch of different agendas.”

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