My story Mike Adams OBE, CEO of Purple

Born in the 70’s, Mike Adams spent his first 16 years at a special school to help him with his disability. Now a champion for the UK’s disabled workforce and CEO of Purple, a disability charity-turned commercial venture aiming to bridge the gap between disabled people and businesses, Mike shares the story of how he became the leader he is today.

The early years

When I was born, my disability came as a complete surprise to my mum, and in those days the doctors highly recommended that I go to a special school in Sussex. So I was separated from her, my dad, brother and sister from six months of age, and lived there for the next 16 years learning not only to be myself but also important skills like independence. It was tough, and the separation wouldn’t be encouraged these days, but I really enjoyed it and I think it gave me a platform that I wouldn’t have gotten if I had gone through mainstream education. It enabled me to think about what I could do and what I wanted to do and that was fantastic.

There were challenges in growing up, but I think I overcame them by being me. I knew what I was and what I wasn’t. In a way I was rather closeted, being in a special school where I wasn’t seen as being different, and I was exposed to the outside world little by little and I quite liked it. I saw challenges as an opportunity to prove I was just like everybody else, and I rose to those challenges from a very early age, which I think has helped me with my leadership skills now.

I wouldn’t say I’m a “great leader”, but I’ve always seen myself as a person who can put their hands up and lead. I got into business at university, where I was elected the President of my Student Union, but I was a slightly different president in that I was more interested in what commercial deals the student union could so with services that benefitted students. I very quickly became involved with the business side of things, and I like to think I left a much bigger imprint on the students there, which is a great legacy to have left.

Challenges and resilience

Setting up a start-up company is really really hard. Every timescale goes out of the window, and things always take longer than expected, which is tough as I’m very impatient and would rather do something yesterday than next week. In many ways what I was doing hadn’t been done before, and so getting it off the ground was a very different challenge.

We’re trying to commoditise disability by saying that it’s valuable to disabled people in terms of what they can offer, but also a real commercial priority for businesses. It can really impact and benefit their bottom-line, and that has been a huge narrative and story to tell businesses who either hadn’t thought about it or had but only in a corporate social responsibility sense. But however it’s more than that; it actually makes really good business sense.

There have certainly been times where I’ve had to tap into resilience in a deep way to overcome challenges and overcome people saying “no” when I’ve known the right answer was “yes.” I’ve kept coming back, rethinking things in different ways, but being determined in knowing that what I thought was right. Not always being right, but listening to people, making decisions and never giving up.

I’ve kept coming back, rethinking things in different ways, but being determined in knowing that what I thought was right.

Looking back at various challenges and setbacks, and how you deal with them, has actually enabled me to be more robust now, and I think if I were to have setbacks now without having faced them in the past, I’m not sure I’d have coped so well.

As a leader, you need to go through these setbacks to build your resilience, and the ability to make the right decisions, even when people disagree. Setting up Purple was a huge challenge in taking a disability charity and turning it into a commercial organisation. The disability community thought it was the wrong thing to do, and in the nicest possible sense, they thought that I was ‘selling disability down the river.’ However, it was the right thing to do, and it’s the way that we are addressing social inequality for disabled people, by showing that they have a value both to disabled people and to business.

I think there’s a huge sense of resilience knowing that it was the right thing to do, even when people were questioning it, and in the last few years we’ve really seen the justification for the decision.

Advice and guidance

I’ve always been quite canny and have been well aware that you can learn so much from other people, particularly those you totally trust and respect. At university, there were a few lecturers who I trusted and would listen to, and would draw from their experiences and knowledge to shape my own thoughts and ideas.

“I firmly believe that I don’t know everything, but I do know the right questions to ask to get me to the right decisions.”
Mike Adams OBE

Throughout my business career, there have been two or three people I could go to when I had issues and concerns, who would give me guidance without necessarily giving me the answer. Three or four others I will meet for a cup of coffee, explain how things are, and they’ll question me and give it to me straight. They won’t give me the answers, but they’ll help me get there, and I trust them and their advice and use it to shape what I do and the decisions I make. I firmly believe that I don’t know everything, but I do know the right questions to ask to get me to the right decisions.

In terms of role models, certainly, Steve Jobs and Richard Branson were two individuals who saw something before anyone else, who made mistakes but also learned from them. They’ve shown bucketful’s of resilience, they put themselves out there and made things happen, and have really changed the world.

Leadership and success

I think there has to be a level of innateness to leadership. I’ve developed a set of skills from other people, and the experience has helped me become a more rounded leader capable of leading in different ways depending on context. Looking back at my career so far, I can see how my different roles have called for a different kind of leadership.

Personally, success for me will be answering the questions: Are we making a difference to the lives of disabled people? Are we achieving it through proxy measures like impacting business? Are we opening eyes to see disability as a commercial opportunity? Are we having conversations that no one was having three or four years ago?

The next step for me and Purple will be delivery. We’ve said a lot of words and created this concept, persuaded people to follow what we’re doing, and explained why we’re doing it. Now we have to translate this into action and start making a difference. I think if we can get this traction and prove to people that it works, and then we have a really good chance at achieving these ten-year ambitions in making a real difference for disabled people and society.

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