A True Story to Share on Servant Leadership and Talent Development


Over the holidays, I sat down with Andre Zotoff, Vice President & General Manager of the iconic Hotel Del Coronado resort in southern California. The conversation turned to talent – how to cultivate and retain it – and Andre had an amazing story that deserves to be shared.

There is a server in the resort’s high-end restaurant who is a good performer, but not great. In other words, the server goes through the necessary motions to get the job done. One day, the server was simply “off” in his performance and made a mistake with an order. Instead of apologizing and offering to fix it, the server brushed it off and basically dismissed the guest’s dissatisfaction. Later that day, Andre received a complaint from the guest, stating they had never experienced such poor service in the 20+ years they had been coming to the resort. Keep in mind that the guest’s perception was that the resort was an incredible, magical place where three generations of her family have stayed and enjoyed. After the service at lunch, she regrettably made the decision never to return and to hold future family gatherings elsewhere. Think about it, 20 years of brand equity and loyalty with one guest destroyed by a single, negative moment.

As you can imagine, this is not what Andre wanted to hear. He called the server to his office and read the note and explained the situation. The server, still standing, shifted his weight from foot to foot and said, “Well, are you going to write me up or fire me?” To his surprise, Andre responded, “Neither. Please have a seat and, together, let’s figure out how to fix this.” They pulled out a pen and paper and together wrote a note to the guest explaining how the server was having an “off” day and that there was no excuse for his actions and attitude. It was an honest, sincere letter, which they left for the guest that evening.

The next day, and completely unplanned, the server saw the guest in the hotel lobby. For whatever reason, the server, on his own initiative, walked over to the guest and personally apologized. They continued to speak and tears began to fall from the server’s face. He felt horrible for having such a negative effect on the guest’s experience and the organization and brand that he was trusted to represent. Indeed, this resort enjoys a superb reputation in the market, earning to date 3.5/5 stars on Yelp, 4.5/5 stars on TripAdvisor and great employee reviews on Glassdoor.com. Needless to say, the server and the guest connected, shared a few more stories, and the guest was booking her next stay before she left the resort.

To me, there are at least a few morals to the story. First, even the best brands sometimes fall short on brand promises, but service recovery is almost always possible in an organization with a service-driven culture. Second, some team members can be saved and even nurtured to be excellent brand ambassadors. Third, the best development tends to happen when team members are coached or mentored by true servant leaders, not mere managers.

Aethos™ partners Keith Kefgen and Dr. Jim Houran recently talked about these issues in their book, The Loneliness of Leadership. If leaders are invested in the success of others, not merely themselves, then the workplace changes for the better in all sorts of ways. For example, employees often “pay it forward,” that is, they will care and have passion for the business and the guests’ experience when they feel that caring and dedication themselves from leaders. As managers, it is easy to say we care or we understand our employees, but a simple action of sitting someone down to understand why something went wrong goes much further than simply solving a problem on your own.

Andre Zotoff’s story had a great outcome, but of course not all such situations end well. Every team member may not be a “hospitality superstar.” However, proactively mentoring others and being actively engaged in their success is where leaders can load the proverbial dice in building and retaining superstars. It’s easy to believe in one’s organization and the direction of the company, but to truly engage with your employees, you need to take actions that demonstrate your belief in them. A simple yet powerful message from this iconic California resort should be shared – we care about our people who take care of our guests.