Why Harry S. Truman was the ultimate COO

Tru that: President Harry Truman's famous philosophy applies perfectly to chief operations officers, according to SynchroPET COO Tom Mariner.

Last week, I visited the 4-mile-wide dot called Key West at the end of the giant fishhook chain of islands hanging from the bottom of Florida.

One of the local attractions in Key West is the Little White House, where Harry S. Truman, the 33rd President of the United States, took the nation’s business when he wanted to get away and think.

We took an educational tour with an enthusiastic, knowledgeable guide who conveyed little-known snippets about Truman and the house, located just 90 miles away from Cuba. Like the fact that he and former President Herbert Hoover collaborated there on a plan to rebuild Europe from the destruction of World War II, but put their egos on a shelf and named it the “Marshall Plan” after a great general of that conflict.

Near the front window of the modest living room, across the hall from where Truman had his nightly poker game, is a tiny desk, way too modest for the purported 600 documents a day he signed, even here, far away from his unfavorite Washington.

Toward the edge of that rectangle of wood was a modest sign that bore Truman’s famous philosophy, placed always in his gaze. The simple, “The Buck Stops Here!”

Tom Mariner: Claiming responsibility.

Our guide brought us up to speed: The slogan did not refer to a $1 bill, but to frontier days when a knife with a buckhorn handle designated the dealer in a poker game. Anyone not wanting the responsibility of dealing passed it on.

Wherever the phrase comes from, the meaning remains for me. I know the job of the chief operations officer is a “No Excuse Zone.”

Everyone else can explain why a new version of a compiler broke the software code, or a customer backed out at the last minute, or the European regulators just threw us a curveball.

Even an organization’s iconic CEO needs a safety valve to explain missed opportunities and deadlines and maintain his or her essential aura of infallibility, for the good of the team.

But the buck stops with the COO.

Just like Truman and Hoover, somebody has to keep all the balls in the air, moving toward the goal, while – this is important – making sure team members grab the praise for their positive actions. That’s the COO.

I’d like to tell you I had the courage to swipe the famous ornament, so closely agreeing with my own management philosophy, from that little desk. But the sign now sitting on my own desk was obtained from the Little White House gift shop, with the help of a credit card.

I also can’t tell you that the dog ate my homework, because I’m a COO. I live in the No Excuse Zone.

Tom Mariner is the chief operating officer of Stony Brook-based SynchroPET, the founder of Bayport-based Kommercialization LLC and the “web guy” for the Benefit Fund Conference.