While the Cat’s Away: Why You Need a Backup Plan


I was a detailee in the Bureau of Consular Affairs in the summer of 2008 when the office managing director walked by my desk and told me to ask my boss to be at TF3 in 30 minutes.

“And make sure he takes the Colombia hostages file,” she added.

My boss had gone out of the building for lunch, along with pretty much everyone else, and within 10 minutes I started pacing as I waited for him to return. He did not have a cell phone, so there was no way for me to reach him.

After a few more minutes, the managing director came by again.


The Foreign Service Officer covering Colombia had departed for his onward assignment the previous week. He had been the hostage families’ chief point of contact for his entire two-year assignment in the office. He had strong personal relationships with the families of the three U.S. citizens who were among the 15 hostages held by the rebel group FARC for six years.

Before the officer departed, he briefed his backup officer and me, the new division deputy, on the cases in his portfolio, and on his contacts within the Department.

Most importantly, he showed us exactly where he kept his paper folder with all the updated contact information for the family members of the hostages in case we needed to reach them quickly.

I grabbed the folder and found a colleague at her desk and asked her, “What’s TF3 and where is it?”

“I’ll take you there,” she said as she grabbed her purse and slipped on her walking shoes.

When I arrived at the Task Force 3 room in the Department’s Operations Center across from the Secretary of State’s suite, I was greeted by Department colleagues and interagency task force members. Soon the world was cheering the brilliant hostage rescue but by then those of us in TF3 were already coordinating the hostages’ personnel recovery and offering support to the families.

This is a dramatic example of the importance of cultivating your team’s backup system but there is every reason to think any office needs to function at 100 percent even when employees are out of the office, either for the day or for six weeks on a detail assignment.

In my current office, we have a sophisticated system of backups that is designed for officers and case assistants to not only handle emergencies but to advance officers’ portfolios. Jeremy Cassano, a former member of my team who’s since moved on to another assignment in the same directorate, developed our team’s backup checklist that may be useful in your office even if you work in significantly different organizational structures.

Jeremy’s backup checklist and etiquette

  • In addition to putting out fires, backups advance portfolios on their own.
  • But how much they are able to accomplish depends on time. For example, more can be done when someone is away for 6 weeks of training versus the officer who takes a few days of leave.

 Preparing your backup

  • Let your backup know your preferred communication style while you’re out. For example, do you want to be cc’d on emails or would you prefer welcome home notes?
  • What’s your organization style? Do you use calendar notes, action items? Anything else?
  • Obsessively maintain your list of contacts, including how your backup – or anyone else on the team – can reach them. In my office, at the very least that means embassy contacts, regional desk officer contacts, foreign government contacts, law enforcement contacts, and other Department contacts. This information should be kept on a spreadsheet where everyone on the team – including me – has fingertip access to it. This is critical because when there’s nobody else in the office but me, which tends to happen after close of business, and somebody calls or walks by my desk for immediate action or information, I know where to start.
  • Where do you keep your case summaries, drafting templates, the latest information or tasking?
  • Countries – how do your countries operate? Anything unusual to note?
  • Cases – provide your backup with chair-to-chair notes on all of your cases, highlighting anything high profile or unusual, so that the backup can swing into action on Day 1 with a fresh approach and thinking of possible next steps.
  • Prior to departure, invite your backup to join you for any briefings or meetings. Smooth the transition by cc’ing your backup on emails related to cases or issues.
  • Update your contacts on your status and let them know when the backup will be taking over.
  • Update your out of office message – both phone and email – with correct contact information for the backup and note the change of POC on high profile cases and issues on any office wide documents.

Backup etiquette

  • Update your office’s software or database but do so helpfully. Don’t use shorthand or be cryptic. If you take action, note it so that the departing officer understands what’s been done.
  • Prioritize and respond to the departing officer’s cases, taskings, projects, and meetings as you would your own – the more easily the departing officer can get back up to speed, the smoother the office runs.
  • Update the departing officer’s chair-to-chair notes, highlighting developments on current projects and cases, as well as anything new that popped up. Don’t just transmit the chair-to-chair notes via email. Brief in person upon the officer’s return.

Departing officer etiquette

  • Although it’s ideal to draft chair-to-chair notes for your backup, it’s not always possible. In that situation, even a quick briefing can be good.
  • Confirm with your supervisor that your backup will also be covering any functional portfolios or side projects or participating in any working groups that you belong to. Should the backup handle those projects or should someone else attend those meetings?
  • No Back Seat Officer-ing! While out on extended leave, don’t add to your backup’s already high workload with questions on every little thing. Trust your backup to do good work.
  • A little thanks goes a long way! A lot of thanks goes even longer!

In addition to Jeremy’s checklist, I encourage officers and assistants to brief the entire team on interesting issues or high profile cases at weekly team meetings.

You never know when a person will be standing in a hallway and an office principal will ask them to grab a folder and take it some place important.

Also, I use team meetings as a supportive space for officers and assistants to sharpen their briefing skills. Conveying important information concisely in person is especially critical when everyone is short on time and events are moving quickly.

The obvious benefit of developing a backup system that advances the mission of the organization is that employees feel free to take advantage of trainings and detail assignments that raise the office’s level of professionalism and expertise.

Yet the system only works if the team buys into it and ultimately values collegiality. We all know what goes around comes around and it can be a burden to do two jobs at once.

A burden, yes, but if you ask Jeremy, fun, too.

The views expressed here are those of Ms. Walker and not those of the U.S. Department of State or the U.S. government.

Carolee Walker is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.

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