Director of Human Resources, Loomis Lakeside at Reeds Landing
She Changes Organizations for the Better Through Empathetic Leadership
By Mark Morris
Toni Hendrix has a few philosophies she’s fond of sharing.
The first is “the fish rots from the head.” To prevent that rot, she believes it’s important for each person to set a high standard.
“We need to lead by example,” said Hendrix, director of Human Resources at Loomis Lakeside at Reeds Landing in Springfield. “I’m extremely passionate about leadership, and when it’s done right, good leaders are role models.”
Her second philosophy is “God don’t like ugly.” She acknowledges the phrase uses improper grammar, but stating the idea this way gives it more impact. The point is not to treat others in an ugly way.
“Let’s do the right thing and treat people with dignity and respect because, if you don’t, karma can come back and bite you.”
Her third philosophy comes from a sergeant she served with while stationed in Germany with the U.S. Army.
“You won’t know how much people can do until they know how much you care,” she said, calling it a great message about the power of empathy. “If you show people that you care, take time to learn about their families, and show a real interest in them, they will take that hill for you. They will even die for you. Otherwise, they’re not even going to follow you up that hill; you’ll be by yourself.”
“If you show people that you care, take time to learn about their families, and show a real interest in them, they will take that hill for you. They will even die for you. Otherwise, they’re not even going to follow you up that hill; you’ll be by yourself.”
Those three philosophies basically boil down to one guiding principle, she added: treat people with dignity and respect. In a quarter-century of honing her skills as as a human-resources professional, she’s followed that guiding principle, especially when facing her toughest challenges.
After graduating from West Springfield High School, Hendrix served for seven years in the Army, which brought her to several U.S. states as well as Germany, Turkey, and South Korea. Her job was supposed to be as a military policewoman, but in the 1980s, the Army prohibited women from serving in that role.
“I ended up doing other duties, like guarding the gate and working as the provost marshal’s secretary, but I was never allowed to work as a military police person,” she said. But instead of letting that experience bring her down, she turned it into a motivator.
“I’ve had my own personal experiences with gender discrimination, sexual harassment, and being treated very differently because I lived in a country where I didn’t speak the language.”
But those experiences provided a background that would become valuable in shaping her career, first as a Human Resources director with Mass Mutual and at several stops after that — all of them marked by a simple desire to be impactful by leading with empathy and treating people the right way.
Focus on Diversity
In the mid-1990s, Mass Mutual was working to address diversity issues that affected not only internal employees, but potential customers as well.
“At that time, their marketing messages were directed to white men with salaries over $100,000,” Hendrix said. “But they were ignoring families with dual incomes, women business leaders, and women entrepreneurs.”
When then-CEO Tom Wheeler decided he wanted diversity to be his legacy, Hendrix became the leader of that effort at MassMutual. Later, in the early 2000s, she brought those same leadership skills to Pennsylvania-based Simmons Consulting.
“We worked with a number of Fortune 100 and Fortune 500 companies that had gotten in trouble around gender or race discrimination issues,” she told BusinessWest. “With our help, they were able to better address diversity in their workforces.”
Hendrix also worked to improve human-resource processes at the American Cancer Society and Baystate Health before taking on her current role with the Loomis Communities.
It was a Loomis board member who encouraged her to be part of Bridge for Unity, a group of people from around the Pioneer Valley who come together to talk about race relations. With a goal of starting a dialogue among diverse people in a thoughtful and safe environment, the group has also hosted similar groups from South Carolina and Kentucky.
The simple act of gathering people to have a dialogue about race has been enlightening at times for Hendrix. “The people from Kentucky have a very different experience than the people from Amherst,” she observed.
A desire to be involved in the community has provided numerous opportunities for Hendrix to share her philosophies. In what she calls “my love project,” she serves as board president for the Art for the Soul Gallery in Springfield. Founded by Stella Butler and Rosemary Tracy Woods, Art for the Soul is a place where underrepresented groups can to display their art in all its various forms. When Woods decided to form a board of directors for the gallery, she asked Hendrix to lead it.
As a first order of business, Hendrix set a strategic goal to get the gallery out of the red. After some modest local fundraising, Art for Soul stepped up its game and organized its largest event, arranging for Harold Melvin’s Blue Notes to perform a concert in Springfield in 2018. Since then, the gallery has operated in the black, allowing the board to be more forward-thinking.
“We can now start to build the brand and develop our board to put the organization in a good place for the future,” she said.
Woods appreciates the impact her friend has had on the gallery. “Toni’s leadership and out-of-the-box thinking have been an inspiration and a godsend to the sustainability of Art for the Soul Gallery,” she said in nominating Hendrix to be recognized as a Women of Impact.
As a human-resources professional, Hendrix has been a member of the Employers Assoc. of the NorthEast for some time, and in January, EANE invited her to join its board of directors. She admitted she was initially hesitant because the group lacked minority staff and board members. “Then I reminded myself, it’s not good enough to just be critical — I also have to serve when asked.”
Once the pandemic is behind us, she said, the human-resources profession will have to operate under a whole new set of rules and policies. “And I think the Employers Association will be right at the forefront of what this new world will look like, so I’m glad to be on their board.”
Meanwhile, years of experience anchored by those strong principles have enabled Hendrix to manage her own staff during these unprecedented times of COVID-19.
“In my entire career, I’ve never seen the kind of fear employees have now,” she said. “I’ve always been a proponent of treating people right, so we are focused on helping people feel more safe.” That involves reassuring employees that their workplace is a safe place and that support systems are in place should they have a problem.
Hendrix and her husband Joe, owner of Smokey Joe’s Cigar Lounge, have lived their lives in a way in which they are always building community. She credits her mother with setting the example a long time ago by always having room at the dinner table, treating visitors with dignity and respect.
“I start every board meeting at Art for the Soul Gallery by going around the table to ask, ‘what’s good in your world?’” she noted. “That way, we know what’s happening in each other’s lives.”
Whether it’s inviting people to her own house for dinner or offering Smokey Joe’s to a family that can’t afford a post-funeral gathering, Hendrix and her husband are dedicated to building community by treating others the way they’d like to be treated. “If that’s the only impact I leave in this world, that’s perfectly fine with me.”