“We don’t make anything at UL, but what we supply is trust. The trust that consumers have when they see our UL mark in a circle, knowing an item meets rigorous safety standards, is our product.”

As we walk into Terry Brady’s office, we can’t help but notice the sailboats: images, paintings, collector’s models—they seem to be everywhere. Next come the bookshelves: rows of thick law books encased in brown bindings line a wall of his office. Brady, president of Underwriters Laboratories (UL), is a man with passion, unafraid to ride the waves. Combined with the calculated nature of his law background, he exhibits a unique presence. As we greet each other, pull out our notepads, and settle in for a conversation about leadership, we see the notes he had jotted down before our interview. This is a man who always comes prepared.  

When discussing the topic of leadership, Brady is candid about his approach. Referencing a recent poll he saw, which stated that 80 percent of people would rather be led than lead themselves, Brady said this is a statistic that does not apply to him. The inclination to lead is something he has always felt comfortable with. “The key is to make it clear to yourself and others that you are fallible and you will make mistakes,” he says. “But you learn from them. If you gave me the choice at any stage of my life to follow someone or try to lead, I would prefer to lead, in a principles-based way with ethics and sincerity.”

Born to Lead

As the second of nine children, Brady points to his responsibilities helping to raise his younger siblings as his first role as a leader. This all-hands-on-deck approach, combined with a strong work ethic instilled by his parents and grandparents, was the natural way to support the family. Brady believes that his leadership comes not only from necessity (due to his family dynamic), but also from his innate ability to communicate with his peers. Today, leading an organization of 14,000 employees, Brady says the company’s message can get lost without this ability to communicate.

In law school at Notre Dame, he served as editor-in-chief of the Journal of Law, Ethics & Public Policy. This role taught him that a supportive team could help shoulder the load, rather than him tackling everything himself. This helped shift his mindset toward more of a coach role, motivating and supporting his team—a role he exemplifies today.

Learning to Let Go

As his career grew, his responsibilities grew as well, providing him the opportunity to let go and empower his team. “Learning to let go and trust others was part of the job,” he says. “That was a challenge as a young partner in a large law firm. Letting go and delegating was, for me, the hardest part of that transition, but I learned it well over time. One of my key philosophies is to select members of my team and understand how to take advantage of their strengths. It’s important to give your team the necessary resources to succeed. Trust is a personal recipe for success.”

Brady spent 27 years at Winston & Strawn LLP before joining current CEO Keith Williams at UL. Brady has now been with UL for six years, starting as a senior vice president and general counsel and then chief commercial and legal officer before finally taking on the position of president of UL’s parent company in February 2018.

When Brady joined UL, he approached Williams to try to understand the company’s overall goals. He wanted to help advise him on informed risks that achieved the business objectives. This switch from legal advisor to company principal was an easier transition than he thought it might be. Even though he did not go to business school, his law background helped him become a leader in the company whom others trusted and looked to for strategic business advice.

Brady points to his previous experiences as a deal lawyer that have helped him become a leader that brings people together. “Deal lawyering is looking to find a common objective and common ground, and I always pride myself on having a knack for communication as a skill set,” he says. “I believe that is something you are born with, which is helping my client understand what the legal risks are and how I can communicate the best course of action. This helps the person make an informed risk decision in order to get to ‘yes’ on a deal or a strategic course of action. Taking these risks is how leaders and businesses advance.”

Leaders Lead Others

Every great leader has a mentor, and Brady is no exception. When asked about what ideal traits he looks for in today’s corporate leaders, he spoke about a close colleague, UL’s CEO.

“Over the last ten years, under the leadership of Keith Williams, UL’s culture has transformed to a highly competitive global organization that puts our customers first. He took the helm at UL and emphasized the importance of science and engineering excellence and customer responsiveness. He got people working both harder and smarter. Keith is a social, friendly and visionary leader—the most impressive CEO that I’ve ever worked with. As I join him in leading the company, I look forward to the future and hope to continue learning from him.”

Leading with Trust

About one month after taking over as president, Brady was called upon to testify before the Senate Committee on Finance about U.S. Customs’ never-ending battle against imported counterfeit goods. Rather than take one side or the other, Brady stayed focused on the facts, without bias toward a government agency or its Congressional overseers. He respects UL’s positive relationships with both U.S. Customs and Congress—relationships that are based on trust.

“We don’t make anything at UL, but what we supply is trust. The trust that consumers have when they see our UL mark in a circle, knowing an item meets rigorous safety standards, is our product.”

By surrounding himself with a strong team and trusting and empowering others, Brady has grown as a leader. He has learned to lead by letting go. When he is not at UL, Brady enjoys sailing on Lake Michigan with his family and playing jazz piano. In fact, these are two things he said he cannot live without.

“Once you turn off the engine and hear the waves with jazz on the speaker and a bottle of French wine, life is good.”

Fast Facts

Location Northbrook, IL
Number of Employees 14,000
Previous Experience Prior to joining UL, Terry was an associate and partner for 27 years in the Chicago office of Winston & Strawn LLP.
Things He Can’t Live Without Great family, great friends, great colleagues, jazz piano, and sailing
Formative Leadership Role He was editor-in-chief of the Journal of Law, Ethics & Public Policy while at the University of Notre Dame.

Interviewed by Rachel Mihulka and Andrew Keller.