when you keep uncovering errors made by your well-loved predecessor

A reader writes:

I just started a new job at a nonprofit organization, taking over for a beloved employee who was here for 20 years and is still a big part of our organization’s community.

He was very successful, but I am coming across a lot of pretty substantial errors he made. A good example is a grant proposal in which he basically ignored the guidelines, although we got the grant anyway. Now I am working on this year’s proposal for that grant; I have to follow the guidelines and I think I really ought to tell my boss about the discrepancies and about what I am doing differently this year. But I am hesitant to do so, because this would be about my 10th time alerting her to something I came across that he kind of messed up. I don’t want to seem as though we have a pattern of “now look at THIS thing Joe screwed up,” and really I don’t want to speak ill of him at all, especially when there never have been negative consequences (such as missing out on a grant). But she is the executive director and she should be aware of everything, especially when I am doing things very differently than he did. Any advice on how to navigate this?

Well, when you say he was “very successful,” what exactly does that mean? If it means that he achieved unusually good results, then it’s important to keep that mind when you’re assessing the mistakes you’re coming across. The grant application might be a good example of this — he didn’t follow the guidelines, but the organization got the grant anyway, so it seems like he did something right. Sure, it’s possible that that was a fluke, but if the outcome was successful, you’re probably going to have a hard time convincing people that it was a problem that he didn’t follow the guidelines. (And yes, of course it’s possible that if he had a habit of not following grant guidelines, there were other grants he applied for that the organization didn’t get … but it’s also possible that he was good enough at the job that he knew what could be ignored and what really mattered.)

Is it possible that the other mistakes you’re finding fit this profile? If something is technically a mistake or not a best practice but he got fantastic results anyway, it might be worth considering that he knew other, different ways of being effective.

Of course, maybe that’s not the case at all and the grant application example is just misleading me. If in fact you’re uncovering things that were genuinely messed up — things where the long-term results were not as good as they could have been because of his mistakes — then that’s different. But start by making sure that you’re really being objective about whether that’s the situation or not.

Either way, it’s not uncommon that you’d do things a bit different from your predecessor. So when you feel that you need to bring something to your manager’s attention — whether it’s because there’s a problem he caused that she needs to know about or because you want her to understand why you’re handling something differently — approach it as simply keeping your manager in the loop. For example: “I wanted to let you know that I’m doing the grant proposal a little differently than it was done in the past, because I’ve found that they’ll sometimes reject you if you don’t follow their guidelines to a T.” You could even ask, “I noticed that Joe didn’t strictly follow them, and I wonder if that’s because we had a more informal relationship with this foundation or whether there’s any other context like that that I should know about?”

As long as you’re not presenting this stuff in a tone of “here’s another thing I’ve uncovered,” your manager isn’t likely to think you’re being unnecessarily hard on Joe.

But what you don’t want is to find yourself in a situation where your predecessor was successful precisely because he knew when he could and couldn’t break the rules and then end up coming across yourself as someone who doesn’t have that nuanced level of understanding. So be sure that you’re assessing what you’re finding not just as “is this done correctly?” but rather as “did this get good long-term results for the organization?”

{ 65 comments… read them below }

  1. Piper*

    Hmmm…I’d love to hear other examples from the OP because if results are a measure of success and this person succeeded in securing a grant, then he was successful. Where is the mistake there? I agree with AAM that in this case and the last paragraph in her advice is completely on point. Maybe he really knew what he was doing. Without other examples, it’s a hard call to make (from an outside perspective).

    1. AB*


      What the OP provided as an example is a poor illustration for bad performance.

      The only purpose of following the guidelines is to increase the odds of success. If the grant was approved, who cares which guidelines were used or not? (To me the fact that the beloved employee achieved the desired outcome proves he was doing the right things.)

      I’m also wondering what’s the purpose of tell the boss “by the way, old employee did not follow the guidelines in this winning grant”? Or even for a grant proposal already submitted, that you can’t fix?

      I wouldn’t even mention I’d be doing things differently moving forward to follow the guidelines unless my boss noticed a difference and asked why.

  2. Piper*

    Oops…sorry. Typing too fast and failing at proofreading. That third sentence should read: “I agree with AAM and the last paragraph in her advice is completely on point.”

  3. Elizabeth*

    Even if some of the things you notice are genuine mistakes, and possibly even had negative consequences, I think you should weigh what the possible benefits are to bringing that up now. There may be some cases where you can quietly fix something (do the application differently this year, for example, or correct the typos in some document) without needing to bring it to your boss’s attention. I would say it probably only needs your boss’s involvement if a) you think someone will notice if you’re doing something differently, and think badly of you for it, or b) it needs action by someone other than you to fix it, and it’s important (for example, he installed new power outlets in the office and you realized that they violate fire code and you need an electrician).

  4. EngineerGirl*

    I hate to say it, but that is usually one of the discriminators between a regular person and an “expert”. Knowing which rules can be ignored when.

    1. Bwmn*

      In the realm of fundraising – this is a huge thing. Not just knowing when rules can be ignored but historically how rules/styles evolved with grants.

      I am a fundraiser and work mostly with grants – and it is frustrating when you’re working on a renewal or new proposal for an organization and you look at the old work and it doesn’t follow the rules. The most frustrating part is that it makes it useless as a template and thus makes more work for you now.

      So if you’re finding issues like proposals not following the rules, reports turned in up to a year late, etc – this is all fairly par for the course in nonprofits. And a huge part of the fundraisers job is to make the donor requirements as painless as possible for the rest of the staff (including the executive director) – and often this can result in trying to bend as many rules as possible.

      Where I would become concerned is if documents aren’t being kept for the amount of time that contracts require (which can be up to 10 years), making things disorganized and at risk for major problems should their be a requested external audit or evaluation. Also, if information on private donors is being hoarded or made inaccessible to you, then that is a major problem.

      But honestly, because a significant part of the grant applicaiton process results in “no’s” – if there are major mistakes – you probably aren’t seeing them. Lots of grant proposals are rejected even if everything’s done right. If a deadline was missed, required materials not includes, etc – it’s pretty easy to hide it amongst other rejections.

      Maybe there are other examples that you’re not sharing – but “fundraising ethics” is unfortunately still a pretty murky concept. You may think you’re finding mistakes that actually aren’t perceived as such in this profession.

  5. majigail*

    I’d bet the director knows there were problems and isn’t shocked you’re finding problems. I would only point out the ones that could affect future success or things that are taking significant time to rework. Beloved internally and externally does not necessarily equal rock star employee.

    1. Revanche*

      “Beloved internally and externally does not necessarily equal rock star employee.”

      I’ve seen employees at all levels thrive on their self-created cult of personality so that when their performance really came into question, no one believed they were the problem. It’s a good thing we don’t manage by public opinion polls though.

      1. Seal*

        This x1000. Being well-liked and being good at your job, while not mutually exclusive, are not the same thing. I’ve seen far too many “beloved” people get promoted because someone likes them, only to fail hugely at their new position. Then no one can understand how that person could have failed because “he’s so nice” or “she’s so funny”.

  6. Sue D. O'Nym*

    It’s also possible that the requirements for the grant application changed between last year and now, and that whatever they wrote was appropriate for last year’s application.

    1. Meg Murry*

      I would agree with this. I would also add that even if the grant had a complicated application process, if your organization consistantly received the grant year after year, “Joe” may have had a good relationship with the people in charge of the grant and had come to an agreement that it was not necessary to re-submit the same information every year, just update what had changed – at that point, the grant paperwork may have just been a required formality, if your org received the same grant money year after year. I know it is this way for some of our local community grants – unless something dramatic happens and some new organizations can pull out some killer arguments for why they should get funding, the same handful of nonprofits get the same awards (or the same ratio of awards, if there is less money to give overall that year).

      I wouldn’t approach it as “look what Joe did wrong” with your boss – I would approach it as “this is how Joe did it, and he got the grant, but it didn’t include A B C and D being asked for in this year’s grant application. Should I follow Joe’s basic template from last year, or should I spend time doing A, B, C and D”? You aren’t pointing fingers, you are just asking whether you should take Joe’s route (which may be more efficient/time saving but not to the letter) or if you should dot all the i’s and cross all the t’s to make sure you get the grant. It also might be worth a conversation with your boss about if there are some grants that in the past were pretty much a given for your org (fill out the form and they are yours) vs ones that you need to put together a lot of supporting documentation for and the time to apply vs likelyhood of receiving the grants in order for you to prioritize your time.

  7. BCW*

    Gotta agree with AAM. Sometimes people do things in an “unconventional” way that other people see as wrong, but if they are getting the desired results (and not by doing anything illegal or unethical) then there is no problem. Perfect example. I used to be a teacher. In almost every way I was the opposite of a model teacher. But, my student results couldn’t be argued with. In our district I consistently had some of the highest scores. So really was I doing anything wrong? No.

  8. fposte*

    I’m not really seeing why this would need to be brought up with your manager in the first place–this isn’t a significant difference (unless it’s a difference in the amount you’re eligible for or something that would otherwise affect your budget or staffing). Grant guidelines often vary from year to year anyway, and you’re not there to rubber-stamp and resend your predecessor’s work–why would you need to explain that the proposal looked different?

    I feel like you’ve got an underlying concern about Joe and his performance that doesn’t correlate with this example; because it doesn’t correlate, I can’t tell whether the underlying concern is one that I’d consider serious. But in general, unless Joe screwed something up in a way that continues to hurt your organization or means your job is now notably harder than your manager would expect it to be, there’s no point in reporting Joe stuff–just fix it or do it by the rules now and move on.

    1. AB*

      Moreover, even if the OP has valid concerns regarding “Joe’s” performance, what would be the point to bring them up to her boss now that Joe is no longer working for the organization?

      1. Meg Murry*

        It says he is still a “big part of the organization’s community”- so he may still volunteer for the org or come to the big annual events. Any chance OP could ask Joe for coffee and discuss some of his methods and reasoning behind grants he applied for, paperwork he filled out, lessons he learned and maybe even introductions to big stakeholders in their field if he has those ties? If he’s still around, he could be a good mentor for the OP, even if it was just for quarterly coffee – from what I understand, there is an art to grantwriting, and there are often little details about different organizations that can make all the difference in how grants are awarded.

        1. fposte*

          Sure, it’d be great for the OP to connect with Joe and learn more about his take on procedures, etc. That’s a really separate issue from telling her manager–more than once, it sounds like–that he did things wrong, though.

          1. AB*

            Yes — the suggestion to talk to Joe and potentially learn context / reasons for him to use a different approach may be a good one, but has nothing to do with the original question, which was how to point out eventual mistakes to the manager after the employee was no longer in the team.

    2. Legal Eagle*

      This was my first thought. There is literally no reason to bring this grant application up with OP’s manager.

      I also agree with Meg Murray’s suggestion about coffee with Joe. Joe successfully got grants and is well liked. He could be a great source of information about specific grant applications and the politics of this organization.

    3. Yup*

      I think I understand the cognitive dissonance element, though. “Joe was a great employee.” OK, I’ll emulate Joe as an example of how to do things. But wait, Joe did these things in a way that seems incorrect. Should I still emulate Joe in these things, or no?

      As a new person, it gets confusing when the model you’re provided as an exemplar doesn’t seem to match up with good practice. So I agree that, ultimately, the OP’s conversation with the boss is less about the predecessor, and more about what’s expected of the OP.

    4. W.W.A.*

      Hi, I’m the OP. The thing is, I keep stumbling over problems that are knock-ons to the issues I see from the past. If I could just say “oh, hm, I won’t do that this year” and not tell my boss, that’s what I would do! But alas it’s never that easy.

      For example, we had to have a contractor choose examples of their work so we could send them to a number of government agencies. They would ask for four consecutive years of examples every year. But Joe would ask for four examples each year and submit them all that year. So here I am with four signed-off-on examples from last year rather than four usable examples from each year that the funders haven’t seen yet (which is what they say they want.)

      This means I have to simply come up with a new way of choosing examples. Fine! But I have to talk about that with my boss, and now I see her getting concerned that we haven’t been doing it the right way in past years. The more similar situations I get in, the more I worry that it’s turning into a “thing.”

      Believe it or not I had a similar situation in my last job, and my volatile boss ended up screaming at me for “concealing” problems I found that were 1/10 as consequential as this stuff.

      This is mostly about getting on the right foot with my boss.

  9. Liz in the City*

    It could be my cold medicine speaking, but am I detecting undertones from the OP that other people in the office are questioning why the OP isn’t doing things the way Joe used to, or that the OP is sick of hearing about the ways the *supposedly* wonderful Joe was handling things when the OP is trying to make their mark in the office? This might be more of a thing where the OP has to say to others who are questioning, “Thanks for letting me know how Joe handled this. I’m reviewing the submission guidelines / reviewing all of our processes / familiarizing myself with everything.” If your manager has no problem with how you’re handling your position, you shouldn’t worry what others in the org think.

    1. Apostrophina*

      Even if she’s not, I think in her shoes I’d want to say to someone, “I see Joe’s grant application didn’t quite follow guidelines: do they actually prefer it that way, or do you have to be Joe [i.e. well-known and well-loved] to make this work?”

      If OP is new to this particular community, it won’t be immediately apparent which of these “errors” might be based on inside knowledge and which ones were really Joe getting a break for being Joe.

    2. Janet*

      This could be – it’s very hard to be the new employee if the older person was there a long time. You’re forever going to be reminded of how that person did the job and it’s hard to be your own person.

  10. cncx*

    I had a job where my predecessor was best friends with my then boss. She was a legal secretary and could not file anything physically or electronically correctly to save her life. She did not know the alphabet, did not know basic geography, could not type a business letter, was just was a complete slack ass for whom I spent two years unwinding her mistakes.
    The problem is, to hear my then boss say it, she was the best employee in the world and god’s gift to legal secretaries, so I had nothing to gain when I said, “I’m sorry, I just had to redo this entire litigation file because you asked me for an exhibit but Slackalicious had left it in a magic box of crap rather than the actual file and the copy was nowhere to be found in the online case file either” . This happened weekly for over two years until I got tired of never being as good as this woman who was patently incompetent because my boss would never believe me when I said file lookups would take longer due to the fact that I had to rename and refile and just FIND everything despite spending months of overtime trying to clean up her best friend’s mess.

    OP should tread lightly because regardless of his work output, he still has relationships there and their opinion of the dude could have little to do with what he actually did, which was my case.

  11. Ann O'Nemity*

    I agree with Alison and the previous posters; it’s likely that the predecessor knew what was “good enough.” He knew which rules could be bent and which could be broken, which details mattered, and when efficiency outranked accuracy.

    It is also possible, however, that the predecessor was able to make serious mistakes undetected *because* he was much loved and had a successful reputation. I’ve seen this scenario play out with a retiring employee who was hardworking and successful for 22 years, and lazy and disengaged for the last 3. By that point, he had a solid reputation and there was very little direct oversight of his day-to-day, so he was able to coast into retirement. It was extremely difficult for the new employee who had to clean up this huge mess that no one else would even acknowledge. Here’s a typical exchange:

    “I noticed that we’re $20k over budget on the Santos project and we still don’t have a working prototype.”
    “Oh, Bob did the prototype and I’m sure the clients loved it. Remember when he worked 80 hours a week during the Y2K scare? Gosh, I miss Bob.”
    “Actually, the notes indicate that Bob did not complete the Santos prototype. In fact, Bob never started development.”
    “You’re obviously mistaken. Bob was great. We all LOVED Bob. Remember when he saved the Smith account?”
    “No, I was still in elementary school then. I’m trying to figure out what Bob did last year.”
    “Well, you’re obviously mistaken. Bob was great. We all LOVED Bob. Remember when he…?”

  12. perrik*

    This is a common problem in organizations; they get hung up on evaluating their success in terms of processes and how perfectly they are carried out, rather than in terms of how fully they achieved their strategic goals. Joe didn’t go by the documented processes, but is that due to error (intentional or otherwise) or because he found more effective ways to achieve the org’s goals?

    When you’re new, go by the book. As time goes on, you’ll probably start editing that book – just like Joe did.

    (now, if the OP returns and tells us about the receipts stuffed into random drawers and the family of raccoons living in the file cabinet, well, that’s different…)

    1. KarenT*

      When you’re new, go by the book. As time goes on, you’ll probably start editing that book – just like Joe did.

      This, 100x

  13. Gobbledigook*

    First impression without knowing other examples of mistakes:

    Your predecessor was an out-on-the-box thinker and probably a charming person. He knew his field very well, had great relationships with organizations he would need to network with and apply for grants with and so he was able to do his job in a slightly unique way. Consider this: Perhaps he had a conversation with the agency he was applying to for the grant and e-mail correspondence was passed back and forth that allowed him to submit this application that does not follow the specific outline? I would try to imagine there is far more context than what you are seeing in front of you.

    Now does if it sound like I have a slight bias toward out-of-the box thinkers it’s because I do. I think going above and beyond in a job often requires some out of the box thinking, depending on what it is. I will say though, that if it’s things he did while in your position confuse you as to how to go about your job, or if you are genuinely interested in understanding why he did things the way he did, those are the things that are valid to bring up to your boss. Don’t go to her with anything unless it affects your own development in this job and if you do, do it in the spirit of: “Jane, I noticed Joe kind of went about this grant application in a different way than outlined. Is that a normal thing? If so, what types of things should I be looking out for?” A genuine attempt to understand as opposed to assuming that because he did it differently, it’s an error. You can’t really judge that, at least from the grant application example, without more context.

    Getting clear and getting context would be the most helpful things for you, I think.

    1. Steve G*

      Everyone here seems to agree that this predecessor was this great, out of the box thinker, but let me give you a few examples of what this person could be talking about from my own experience:
      1) Predecessor not applying for certain rebates because they were “too much work,” even though new staff does them with no problem,
      2) Saying a certain situation/client doesn’t qualify for a rebate without ever checking with the authorities issuing the rebate, and their word was taken as truth because they were the “expert,”
      3) Checking “yes” on a bunch of compliance questions to the authority, without ever checking that our clients were compliant on those points, knowing the chances of being audited on those points is very very rare at this point in time.

      This is an example from my own job, and certainly no one would consider such actions “out of the box.” But these actions also didn’t get caught, because there was no downside, only no upside to them as of yet.

      1. Gobbledigook*

        You could be right that the OP’s co-worker was similar to your example, however, I think we’d need more info to know. Based on the one example given of a “mistake”, that doesn’t sound to me to be the case.

        1. Steve G*

          Tiz true……but, and I am not playing devil’s advocate here or making up stories so I can comment:-), but it just so happens that said person used to respond to RFPS in a willy nilly manner as well. We didn’t win any. Of course it was probably from other reasons, but coincidentially when the office staff changed and we started responding in a militant manner, we’ve won 2 out of 4 we’ve done the past 3 yrs.

      2. Ask a Manager* Post author

        I’m not assuming the predecessor was fantastic — maybe he was or maybe he wasn’t. But I think it’s worth the OP stepping back to make sure she’s looking at this the right way, because the example she gave raised some questions in my mind about that. But I don’t want to sound like I’m assuming he was fantastic — I have no idea!

  14. HR Pufnstuf*

    Unless the boss is going to see an error that will hurt in the future it does no good bringing it up. And if it may hurt, be ready to show repairs.

    Remember, this boss was his boss too, if he was error prone and she didn’t catch it, at some point you’re doing nothing more than rubbing salt into the wounds.

  15. BCW*

    Also, let me say that I know how much it sucks having to clean up someone else’s mess. But you haven’t really made a case that this is a mess, just that its not how you think it should have been done (even if it didn’t meet the stated requirements). There is a big difference.

  16. Anonymous*

    He’s not even there anymore so why the tattling? He did it his way and got results. You’ll do it your way and hopefully get the same results or better. If anyone asks say, “I am following the guidelines spelled out here. Let me know if it should be done differently.”

  17. Dave*

    Spot on to AAM. If you’d do things differently that’s one thing– it’s nature to scoff and decide that they did it wrong. However if things that they did are creating problems for the company going forward, such as you having to spend significant time cleaning up a mess they left behind, you should let your manager know because it would be impacting your work load.

  18. Christine*

    No time at the moment to read the other comments, but this is precisely the kind of situation that would have me in a quandary. I am a HUGE stickler for following guidelines/rules, and would be worried that I’d be seen at too “by the book”.

    Excellent advice Alison – I’d say it could apply to any situation of this type, regardless of context.

  19. Just a Reader*

    I wonder why these “mistakes” are being brought up at all. Unless they are currently costing the organization, there’s just no reason for it. In the end, it will make the OP look petty and rigid.

    OP, focus on your own techniques for getting results and only alert your manager to what seems to be a mistake if there’s an actual, current, negative impact. You need to build your own reputation, not be perceived to be trying to tear down someone else’s.

  20. Andrew*

    I would be very curious to know how the boss responded the first 9 or so times the OP brought up her predecessor’s supposed mistakes. Were these things taken seriously, or were they explained away or dismissed?

    1. tcookson*

      When our budget person started a few years ago, she complained constantly, to her boss and anyone else who would listen, about her predecessor (who was much loved around here).

      She came into the job with a lot of performance anxiety, which she alleviated by covering her ass by blaming everything on her predecessor.

      Her boss finally told her, in front of everybody, that now that the previous fiscal year had closed, her grace period for blaming everything on her predecessor was over — it was all her from now on. She still tried the “blame-the-predecessor-card” a few more times, but the boss shut her down from there on out.

  21. Steve G*

    I think we may be looking at this the wrong way. Many jobs have compliance aspects that are rarely audited (for example they always checked “yes” on forms without every checking if they met the criteria, just to get the forms done) and it is possible the person was ignoring these. So this person may have inhereted work that, from a compliance perspective, is a mess, but since the former employee didn’t get caught, everyone though the person was great. This is very possible in my field, anyway

    1. W.W.A.*

      Hi, I’m the OP. This is a very good way to describe what was going on. Compliance was just one part of the issue but it’s definitely a big part.

      1. Steve G*

        Oh my lord I left a few mistakes 2 jobs ago and now feel bad again! But what could I have done? On my last day, say “BTW I screwed something up last year and you didn’t notice.”?

  22. Anon*

    I don’t see what she has to gain by pointing out her predecessor’s mistakes. To me, it sounds like she’s trying to make her colleagues think that the predecessor wasn’t as great as they thought he was in an effort to boost her reputation.

  23. Dan*

    Others have said this before me, but I’ll “+1” it:

    The OP’s biggest concern is that she needs to know if she should emulate a flawed process or not. This is not “pointing out Joe’s mistakes” but making an effort ensure she doesn’t make mistakes of her own.

    1. Gobbledigook*

      Some of the reason people could be responding this way is because the OP used the word “mistakes” to describe things her predecessor had done that did not fit an outlined process. I’d agree with how you phrased it and encourage the OP – if she doesn’t already see it this way- to see this as an opportunity to gain clarity and insight into her job as opposed to viewing what was done before as a “mistake” that she needs to decide whether to report or not, which is what the letter originally says.

  24. Diane*

    OP, I sympathize because I walked into a similar situation. My predecessor and my previous manager were well-regarded, and I still hear, “Well Jane always did it this way . . . ”

    But. You really need to be clear why you’re bringing issues to your boss or coworkers and what you want done as a result. You could be dealing with one big hairy mess after another — but what do you need to happen? Do you need your boss to understand why you’re taking twice as long as Bob did on a grant application because you’re following guidelines? Do you need clarifying information about Bob’s process or relationships that made it acceptable for him to follow his own process? Do you need IT and Archives to track down all the old files so you can properly report on past projects?

    As others have said, decide whether you need to say anything at all, and if you do, focus on the task or process, not on Bob’s idiocy. Remember, everybody is somebody’s idiot.

  25. W.W.A.*

    Hi, I’m the OP. I didn’t want to get bogged down in examples but trust me that I am talking about mistakes and not “outside the box thinking” or “efficient actions of an expert.” Small but consequential mistakes. Like, if somebody asks for a budget for an ongoing project, he would accidentally attach the one from last year. That’s not something I would need to “tattle” about. But what if I need to update the budget and I ask my boss where I should get the numbers, and she asks me to adapt it from last year’s, and I say “well, last year’s is actually from two or three years ago.” This is the dilemma I’ve run into numerous times.

    1. fposte*

      I’m still scratching my head here, because you’re either overreacting or underreacting depending on what’s actually involved. You’re going into a lot of “what ifs” to make this example seem a current problem, and I’m puzzled by how passive and needing direction you paint yourself in these scenarios in order to make them happen. If you know the budget was attached wrong once because you have the right numbers, you use the right numbers. If your boss says “Hey, I thought Joe sent me other numbers before he left” you say “Those were actually 2011; these are the correct ones.” The end. If, on the other hand, this was an error that endangers current deliverables and/or makes you vulnerable in an audit, then it’s up to you to initiate a meeting to raise this problem, not to wait to see if the boss remembers an old budget and queries a discrepancy.

      Even if there’s no funding or legal risk, at this point it might be worth meeting with your boss just to ask if you’ve been triaging such problems the way she prefers. Just being straight and asking your boss might give you some clarity on the issue.

      1. Jessa*

        Exactly. If these errors/mistakes/out of box thinkings have a knock on effect to current work, then fix them. If you can do that without bothering the boss, do it. If you can’t because you need information/there could be an audit/whatever, then tell the boss and ask how they want it handled.

      2. khilde*

        fposte for President!! You analyze details in a way that I can barely comprehend, but I always make sure to slow down and read your responses as carefully as I can follow (details just make my eyes glaze over), because I can usually learn how to see things in a more analytical light from you. So good job. I don’t know how you do it.

        1. fposte*

          Thanks! I’ve followed in a lot of footsteps, so this problem seemed familiar to me. I know what you mean about details in unfamiliar contexts, though–we have a lot of interesting discussions here on specialized areas that I don’t do, and I can get lost in those pretty fast.

    2. CoffeeLover*

      Agreeing with fposte about everything.

      The concerns you have may be more legitimate than the examples seem to show, but so far the examples you’ve given don’t constitute the serious implications fposte points out (vulnerability to audit). Of course feel free to correct me. Anyways, if the concerns aren’t that serious, then rather than being concerned that you’re harping on a “beloved” ex-coworker, I think you should be more concerned with coming across as someone who needs to be micromanaged. There’s age old advice out there about starting a new job and how you should ask questions (i.e. trying to figure things out first and saving your questions until you have several so you’re only interrupting your boss once). I think you should view this in the same way. In the example you give here, your boss gives you the task of updating the budget. She “suggests” using the old budget as a “guideline”. Obviously you should listen to your boss’s suggestions, but at the end of the day she wants you to figure some things out and get her that budget. I don’t know how long you’ve been there, if it’s 2 weeks, then going to your boss about (what appears at the moment to be) minor concerns that you should be able to handle yourself, might be giving her micromanagy vibes. Look at how your boss is reacting. When you go to her with the above concern, does she say “oh, well then use the correct one.” If it’s like this then she’s pointing out something that you should have been able to figure out yourself. Of course, you are the best judge of how serious your concerns are.

      Other than that, I also agree that talking to your manager might be best

  26. Cassie*

    I had a situation like that – when going over a grant application my predecessor prepared (which was funded), I noticed her calculations were wrong. I had to tell my boss why there weren’t enough funds for ABC and XYZ, even though they all were included on the budget originally. It’s because the overhead wasn’t calculated correctly so we can only afford XYZ.

    Some funding agencies do not check calculations very closely (others are super meticulous).

    However, I think it’s an uphill battle to bring up the predecessor’s mistakes – it’s not going to really get you anywhere. When you’re preparing the new grant proposal, follow the guidelines and if your boss asks, you can point to the guidelines. I’d only bring up the predecessor’s errors if they will impact your work now (such as my example above). So maybe you’d have to mention the mistakes on the proposal, but that should be in the context of the status of the last year (or current year?) funding, and not the proposal. I’m probably not making much sense…

    Of course, if there’s a question of (for example) how come we could afford 25 students with $100K last year but your budget this year has only 15 students for $100K, then you would need to point out the errors from the last budget.

  27. chico*

    To the OP- while I agree with some of the others that you need to be careful in what you focus on, I did want to tell you: I believe you! Bob sounds terrible. Your workplace where everyone loves Bob and fondly remembers him is not the place to mention that, but I’m on your side. My gut tells me when he attached the “wrong” budget he knew what he was doing. Bob! *shakes fist* good luck!

    1. anon, obviously*

      I am in a similar situation. Everyone thinks my predecessor hung the moon. But the more I dig into what he did, the more I find that he really wasn’t as thorough as everyone thought. It gets a little tiring to hear my boss rave about Mr X when I know that Mr X didn’t do it right!

      1. anon, obviously*


        1. We are opening an office outside the US based on the analysis Mr X did. In his proposal, he refers to the extensive research he did to choose that site. I finally found his research: a two-page spreadsheet with our company sales by country for the past three years. Now that we are looking for our next international site, I have been doing research for the past three months, looking at GDP, GDP growth rates, manufacturing stats, education stats, FDI, and all the other things you consider before making a huge financial investment.

        2. My boss was looking over the 2013 business plan for our group with me and a new manager. He noticed that the numbers for Morocco were wrong. He jokingly told me he would have to slap my wrist for not putting in the right numbers. I went back to my desk and checked my documents: I had discovered the mistake and corrected it before the plan was ever made public. He was using the version Mr X had put together.

        3. We realized that the Italy country manager has been throwing all of his expenses into what is essentially the “Other” category in his monthly reporting. The new Europe manager asked my boss about it. Mr X used to be in charge of all of that reporting. (I am not in charge of it – it goes directly to finance now.) Mr X never should have let someone lump almost all expenses into one category!

  28. Jamie*

    really I don’t want to speak ill of him at all, especially when there never have been negative consequences (such as missing out on a grant).

    If there have never been negative consequences to any of this I wonder if this isn’t about Bob doing things wrong as much as differently than the OP. There is a huge difference between the two. And in a well run organization there are checks and balances to make sure there is more than one set of eyes on the crucial stuff – i.e. having internal auditors look at things so there are no surprises in the external audits. If you don’t have checks and balances and Bob was able to screw things up willy nilly for all these years while still getting results – there are bigger organizational problems than Bob.

    But she is the executive director and she should be aware of everything, especially when I am doing things very differently than he did. Any advice on how to navigate this?

    Everything? No. If an ED was intimately aware of every part of every job then there isn’t enough time to do hers because she’s too busy micromanaging everything else. A good ED will have a great idea overall of how things are going, and any problems which affect the goals, but they will hire capable people and let them run.

    1. Catbertismyhero*

      +1! I would be getting really tired of hearing about all the issues. I stepped into a similar situation; after two weeks of letting my boss know all the problems and my proposed solutions, he told me he hired me to fix them and just get it done.

  29. Been There*

    I understand how the OP feels…..and you know what the awful truth is? There are zillions of “Bobs” out there cutting a messy swath through every organization–and doing it with a big smile!

  30. David Van de Voorde*

    I’m wondering about the “guidelines” and “paperwork” in general. Guidelines, procedures, paperwork are there to make things manageable and verifiable. But more often than not, people see these things as a burden. For example, guidelines are written to fit only the case in which all goes well, or they try to include all possible things that could go wrong so they become unworkable, or they just describe an old way of doing things while reality moved on. The same for paperwork: ideally, it should make you more effective and efficient. But what if it doesn’t?

    And then we come down to characters. Some people believe procedures are in place so everybody works the same way and we always get the expected results. Hence they must be followed strictly. Others find they slow them down, they have to do things outside the procedure anyway, people asking for the precise paperwork do it only because they have to and don’t read it anyway, …

    So, OP, perhaps you have to reflect about your organisation and its partners to see what the culture of following everything to the letter is. Perhaps all parties theoretically want the paperwork, but in practice arrange everything amongst eachother? I would check with the receivers of the paperwork what it is they want exactly, and whether they were pleased with the work delivered in the past. Because in the end, you want to deliver exactly what they need, not more, not less.

    1. Bwmn*

      That kind of ongoing relationship buiding is exactly the difference between being new and having been in the position for a while.

      As a fundraiser, some granting bodies I work with have very strict guidelines that are expected to be followed exactly – and if you mess one thing up then your whole proposal is in the trash. Other granting bodies are so “partner friendly” – they’re just as happy for you to submit the documents you submitted to another donor in the spirit of not having organizations reinvent the wheel.

      I think that in general fundraising hand over – especially for organizations where the fundraising department may be a department of one or two people – is challenging. Given grants various renewal cycles – you may be in a position for a few years before having to tackle what’s wanted in a specific proposal.

      On the other hand, if you’re noticing now that critical documentation that’s supposed to be saved for up to 7-10 years is unfindable or disorganized – get on that now and not in a situation when you do end up with an external audit/evaluation.

  31. Grantwriter*

    I feel for you- I really do. I’m in a very similar situation where, a year in, program staff (who know nothing of what I actually do) talk about how great my predecessors were and why can’t I be more like them. These are people who have no idea that I walked into a complete cluster. Proposals and grant reports were sloppy and incomplete; sometimes they got the funding, sometimes not. My advice to you is to bring up specifics to your manager so that they know you know what you’re talking about. Don’t worry about every little thing- b/c I’m sure there’s plenty- just focus on what’ll make the biggest impact/point. Then you can show them that your way is the best moving forward.

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