Lena Ann McQuary: Making Employees Feel Valued and Appreciated

10 Most Influential HR Executives of The Year 2024

Lena Ann McQuary, a human-centered HR leader, excels at implementing HR initiatives that drive a business forward into a promising future. As the Chief Human Resources Officer, she influences all aspects of HR functions at Downstream Casino Resort, from benefits, training and development to hiring and terminations.

In the HR space, Lena has carved out a distinctive place for herself because of her exceptional leadership and determined attitude. Once she sets her mind to something, she will do what she can to see it to realization. And she feels a sense of success when she is able to find a purpose

that creates happiness for herself and others. “Purpose inspires and gives me motivation to consistently become a better person, which in turn, fuels my passion,” she says.

As an HR leader, Lena’s ultimate goal is to provide a healthy, safe, and fun environment for her team members. “I want them to feel valued and appreciated,” she says.

Curiosity Led to the HR Industry

Lena has been a part of the HR industry for nearly 14 years. According to her, it is “curiosity” that led her to this industry. Since the beginning of her career in human resources, she has worked in many different capacities throughout the HR department. She started as an HR Administrative Assistant at Downstream Casino Resort. “I was honored to accept my first position,” she says.

In 2021, she was promoted to Director of HR at Downstream Casino Resort and given the opportunity to collaborate with the company’s [then new] General Manager, Stuart Grayson. A couple of years later, in 2023, she was promoted to CHRO. Lena points out that Stuart has been nothing short of supportive and appreciative of her efforts in the HR space. “He has granted me and the HR team the chance to step out of our comfort zone and reach new potential,” she adds. “My autonomy has grown to new levels.”

In 2022, Lena’s professional drive led to her recognition as the HR Leader of the Year by the National Native Human Resources Association. For her, this accolade tops the list of best recognition she has received as the HR leader to date.

Lena draws inspiration from many things. First and foremost, Jesus Christ inspires her daily. “I wouldn’t be alive, let alone where I am today without HIM,” she says.

And she credits her grandparents, Wayne, and Nancy for inspiring her to take the next step of faith in her career. “They were always my number 1 fans,” Lena says. Even after their passing, they both continue to have a major impact on her life.  

About Downstream Casino Resort

Downstream Casino Resort is owned by the Quapaw Nation. Ever since its opening in 2008, it has been a vibrant center for entertainment in the four-state area. Lena says that guests visit their casino resort from around the country, to enjoy the fine dining options, an incredible center bar, and live music.

The resort features meeting and event spaces, a gorgeous pavilion, outdoor and indoor swimming pools, a hotel, and relaxation in Nee Spa. The gaming floor, spread over an area of 60,000 feet, has a variety of slot machines and table games, including craps, roulette, blackjack, and poker. Downstream is also known for being a hub for romantic nights out, gaming, fun, entertainment, golf, weddings, and corporate events.

Within a 50-mile radius of Downstream Casino Resort, there are 19 other casinos. “We are not focused on them [competitors] or what they are doing,” Lena says. “We remain a magnetic place to work and play by way of our guests and team members.”

She believes that if their team members are treated well and offered benefits beyond expectation, they will then in turn show guests what a wonderful place Downstream is. So, she ensures that their team members go through extensive guest service training, and because of that, their guests feel welcomed while enjoying the experiences offered by Downstream.

The leadership team of Downstream has big plans for the future. They, however, want to keep them under wraps and reveal them at an appropriate time. “The future looks incredible for the guests of Downstream, our internal team members, and the Quapaw Nation,” Lena says. “Stay tuned!”

Dealing with Challenges 

Challenges are a part of every leader’s career journey. Lena, too, has encountered them a number of times. She believes that challenges have the capability to make one stronger, especially if one embraces the encounters ahead of them.

“Challenges build resilience capacity, and overcoming obstacles enhances the chance for growth,” she says. And she is not afraid of taking the first step due to the prospect of failure. When she has to take that crucial first step to bring about change, she draws inspiration from a quote by Rosa Parks, an American activist in the civil rights movement: “To bring about change, you must not be afraid to take the first step. We will fail when we fail to try.”

Another quote that resonates with her is by Francis of Assisi, who founded the religious order of the Franciscans: “Start by doing what is necessary, then do what is possible, and suddenly you are doing the impossible.”

Leading the Way 

Over the last several years, the functionality of HR has been evolving and changing rapidly. Lena keeps herself updated about every new development as well as ensures that her team works to stay ahead of recruitment and talent attraction trends and organizational development. She is also known for maintaining a fun and supportive culture for the team members.

“As the CHRO of Downstream, I am intentional about utilizing resources, being transparent with our team, and trusting others to do their part to move the business forward in a positive manner,” Lena says. And she lets her team members know that she appreciates and values them. She shows them that by championing their needs, wants, and development.

“We know that everyone plays an important part here in shaping the company culture, and we want them to know that,” Lena says. Recently, she and her team restructured the leadership for a succession plan to promote additional development opportunities for advancement, which helped increase the motivation and morale of Downstream’s employees.

The role of CHRO comes with its share of challenges. “The roadblocks that I have faced in this role have been: working on the business over working in the business,” Lena points out.  Such roadblocks have allowed her to focus on the big picture instead of hyper-focusing on trivial details. She has also found that she needs to take more time for personal development and push herself to new heights. When she does that, she feels that she can lead the team more effectively and elevate them as well.

Lena believes that a healthy culture starts at the top with leadership, and it is up to her and other leaders to hold themselves to a higher standard and live their values. “We hold ourselves and others accountable to those values, mission, and expectations, leading the way and modeling behavior for those who collaborate with us,” she says.

CHRO’s Regular Day at Work

There is no “regular” day in HR at any casino. So, Lena, too, does not have a typical work day. Her every day is vastly different from the day before. “This is why I know that I will never be bored and always have something new to learn,” she says.

As the CHRO, Lena oversees all HR functions and managers within Downstream’s HR department, which includes benefits, training and development, hiring, terminations, team member events, and much more. One day, she could be involved in a reasonable suspicion drug screening, an investigation, or team member relations, and the next day, she could be brainstorming about training and development, working with the Quapaw Nation, and working to get team members the best benefits and total rewards as possible.

At Downstream, Lena’s team members enjoy multiple advantages, including a learning center, which is a childcare center, and an onsite health clinic with free services – Lena oversees both of them. In addition to that, a primary part of her day-to-day work is to ensure the welfare and enhance the morale of their team members. For example, every December, they plan and execute a vibrant event for team members that includes gift card giveaways, ticket items, and major electronics during games of bingo.

On certain days, Lena also dedicates a significant amount of her time to listen to team members to gain a better understanding of their specific ideas, situations, wants, and needs. “I must understand that we have policies to abide by; however, I also build rapport and have empathy for their life situations,” she says. “I am intrigued by our team members and the experiences they bring to the table.”

She also points out that she is primarily responsible for managing the team member base, which affects the ongoing success of Downstream and the ability to differentiate itself from the competition. Under her leadership, the HR team focuses on maximizing value to Downstream Casino Resort by developing team members and their skills to enhance the service of their careers; and continually assessing the quality of the workplace and HR programs to encourage team members to gain retention.

One of the most vital aspects of running an HR department is the regulatory aspect. “Compliance and consistency are key,” Lena says. “Our practice to stay a successful business is to continually take an ethical approach to all interactions with team members.”

Issues will always arise, regardless of how cautious one is regarding morals and ethics. What matters the most is how the HR team processes issues. Lena’s led HR department has strategies at the ready along with updated policies and procedures to address and resolve issues. “We practice a professional operation with a culture that assigns integrity at the forefront,” she says.

Lena has a busy work schedule. She, however, does not let it affect her personal life. She believes that a balance between work life and home life is essential to her mental health and the well-being of her family and her HR team. “My personal time is vital,” she says. “My family grounds me and supports my endeavors.”

“I concentrate on work while I am at work and give attention and have fun with my family outside of work,” Lena adds.

Use of Technology in HR

HR is consistently impacted by the ever-changing technology. Since joining the HR team at Downstream Casino Resort in 2010, Lena has seen the adoption of numerous technological advancements in the HR space. She says that they have had to prepare after every release because there is a learning curve for each new platform.

She also points out that there is now an abundance of choices, including HRIS and other tools. And, as they employ over 850 people, these tools are essential to what they do. “Technology has granted us the chance to work together as a team to take care of our team members, so we are not inundated with administrative tasks,” she says.

Message to Aspiring HR Professionals and Business Leaders

Lena encourages aspiring HR professionals and business leaders to stay open-minded and understand that they are always capable of learning and thriving on a mental and professional level each day. “Consistently feed your mind by reading business articles, scholarly journals, ever-changing laws, magazines, and books,” she says.

“I have learned to permanently hold myself to a higher standard when it involves accountability and responsibility,” she adds. “I have never regretted my moral and ethical behavior.”

“The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams” ~Eleanor Roosevelt