By Judith Munson —
People get a lot of messages about how to succeed at life: Selfishness is sometimes requisite to scaling the ladder, right? We need to sell ourselves, focusing on our fiefdom at the office at the expense of others. A promotion at the end justifies the means. Not so for Dave Skogen, who is driven by the concept that we’re created to serve others in all we do, from work to home and every moment in between.
Skogen is the founder of Festival Foods in Onalaska and has been voted Best of La Crosse County 2018 “Best Public Servant.” He’s a living testament to the concept of servant leadership.
The Skogen family entered the grocery business in 1946 when his dad, Paul, borrowed $500 to open Skogen’s I.G.A. on 2nd Avenue in Onalaska. With their house attached, learning the business was a given.
Later, with Dave as CEO, the family entered the big-box world opening a Festival Foods in Onalaska in 1990. Today his son Mark is CEO and oversees 31 Festival Foods locations across the state.
Despite their financial success, it wasn’t about accumulating money, says Skogen. “We’re created to serve … in Matthew we’re told, ‘those wanting to be a leader among you must first be the servant … if you choose to lead, you must first serve.’”
The Skogens have contributed often to community projects and were one of the leading donors to the Veteran’s Memorial Stadium at UW-L. Their most recent community project is Dash-Park, which is revitalizing a once-blighted area of downtown Onalaska, next to a restaurant they built.
“It’s an obligation to give to our capacity as successful business people,” says Skogen. “My father was philanthropic, and I learned from watching him.”
Skogen says servant leadership is about being humble, putting others’ needs before your own, and is a learned skill. “Leaders aren’t some elite group,” he says. “We are all leaders, from the mechanic to the physician. Everyone can be great, because anyone can serve, to paraphrase Martin Luther King. Our higher purpose is to serve and enrich the lives of others.”
His belief in this principle is so strong that he helped bring a high school curriculum, “Character Lives,” to our area. It is now used in 21 area schools. He also presents at a servant leadership course at Viterbo every year.
Skogen and those teaching servant leadership are ahead of the curve in filling a major need in today’s workforce. Recently a Google study of its own management found soft skills—knowing how to collaborate, listen to others, be a good coach, etc.—are sorely lacking in today’s hires who are more than STEM-ready to work otherwise. STEM skills actually came in dead last in Google’s survey.
“You can have someone with the highest school scores, who interviews great and has top-notch technical expertise, but if character isn’t there, they will struggle,” says Skogen.
Good leadership is also about telling the truth, he says. “‘We spend half our waking hours with people we lead. They’re entrusted to our care. If we don’t influence them to be better than when they came, then shame on us. That’s called mediocrity and mediocrity is exhausting. A leader’s job is not to make everyone happy, but to point out their strengths and their weaknesses.
“We want to work for someone with strong values, who pushes us to excellence and causes us to be better—both skills-wise and character-wise. This leadership will transfer to their family life, and in the end we’re building a healthier community.”
Building better communities—it’s not just about donating to this project or that. It’s about leading by action and turning action into lives changed for the better.
For more information about Dave Skogen and the servant leadership principle, his book “Boomerang!” is available at www.9thstreetpublishing.com.