Mike Adams OBE, CEO of Purple, is on a mission to help business find valuable talent among the UK’s 11.5 million disabled people – and to assist them in accessing the £212bn ‘purple pound’ they hold as consumers. Director met him to talk careers, confidence and commercial opportunity
Mike Adams is expecting to become unpopular. The chief executive has just transformed a regional business run solely by disabled people into a national not-for-profit organisation with both disabled and non-disabled people on its board. The aim of his new venture, Purple, is as he puts it “to change the conversation on disability”.
Specifically, he wants to bring down the barriers preventing companies from accessing the vast talent pool within Britain’s 11.5 million disabled people, 79 per cent of whom do not have a job. In addition, he intends to help businesses to access the immense spending power of the disabled population and their families, a ‘purple pound’ worth £212bn which 30 per cent of firms have never considered adapting their products and services for.
“I think I’m going to receive a lot less Christmas cards this year,” he jokes as he takes a sip of his tea at Director’s covershoot. “I spoke to someone from another disability organisation last week who said, ‘Why have you sold out? Why have you made disability a governance issue that non-disabled people are going to have an equal say in?’ I am bracing myself to become even more unpopular, but I know it’s right, ultimately this is not about politics… Purple is about addressing supply and demand – we will continue to support disabled people to seize opportunities, to understand their skills, to put themselves out there in a meritocracy like everyone else, while at the same time working with businesses and supporting them as well.”
One of the key areas in which Purple will support business by getting the conversation started with potential disabled employees in the first place. The company’s research has found that one in five business leaders would be worried about interviewing someone with a disability for fear of saying or doing the wrong thing: “People said there is still this fear of terminology, etiquette and not offending disabled people – unless we address that, businesses won’t even see the talent,” says Adams, adding this advice to recruiters: “Firstly you have to take that leap of faith and not worry about offending people, because 99 times out of 100 people will see the context in which it has been said. It’s the fear of that one person who will be offended that drives behaviours. Secondly, we can help provide you with the toolbox so you can feel confident using the basic terminology and language. Once people gain that confidence, then they’ll start to look at the CV and explore the skill-sets.”
Talking with confidence
Adams says he has experienced this etiquette anxiety in his own professional life: “I met a business associate for the first time recently in a café, the waiter brought my coffee and placed it out of reach. We were talking about business and the etiquette issue, and eventually she said, ‘I’ve sat here for 10 minutes wanting to ask you whether you needed your coffee moving, but I was worried about asking that.’ And I said, ‘That exemplifies entirely the issue around employers.’ From that moment she understood. Absolutely ask, because it’s a genuine question – I was delighted because for her it took away all the anxiety and gave her confidence and for me it meant I could have a drink!”
Indeed ‘Disability Confident’ is the name of the government’s initiative that offers guidance and awards companies with an accreditation for recruiting and retaining disabled people. Launched by the Department of Work and Pensions at a major event attended by then prime minister David Cameron in July 2013, the scheme offers three stages of accreditation which a business can then publicise as part of its credentials as an employer. But, while Disability Confident was initially aimed at bigger enterprises, Adams says he understands that it is not necessarily an easy proposition for SMEs: “It’s very easy for governments to throw out initiatives and expect business to pick it up, interpret it and run with it, but, particularly in SMEs, it can be a case of, ‘fine, but I just don’t have the time’.
“It’s incredibly important that this is just as accessible to Joanne Bloggs, who runs an SME employing 10 people, where selling their goods and services to disabled people and employing disabled people could prove vital to the business. So we are putting an offer out to businesses that says if you want to be Disability Confident we understand the needs of business and we understand disability, and we will work with you, alongside you, helping you accelerate the process that will then allow you to exploit the commercial advantages that it will bring. We want to see a change to your bottom line, a change to your workforce and to work with a swathe of leaders who really can understand disability and start making that social change.” Among the first organisations to work with Purple to achieve Disability Confident accreditation is Essex County Council, which announced the partnership this month.
But another sobering statistic from Purple’s research is that 50 per cent of businesses say they are reluctant to hire someone with a disability due to fears the person wouldn’t be able to do the job. “You cannot dismiss that and say ‘in 2016 that’s simply the wrong way to look at it’ – we are where we are and we need to support business leaders,” says Adams. He adds that a shift in perspective, away from a tendency to look at the details of a person’s particular disability (43 per cent of employers expect disabilities to be disclosed on an applicant’s CV, despite there being no legal obligation to do so) and instead focusing on the role they’re applying for and whether they will be able to carry it out, will be crucial to bringing about change.
Focus on talent
“I can walk into a room and businesspeople know pretty quickly that I have a disability,” he says. “But four out of five disabled people have hidden impairments – you might not know they have a disability until they’re in the interview and you ask certain questions, and a lot of disabled people, particularly if they have mental health or fluctuating conditions, will be worried about sharing that. But our response is ‘does it matter, do you want to label someone?’ It should be about, ‘what is the role, and what is it about the role that your disability may prevent you from doing in the way we’ve traditionally done it, what adjustments do we need to put in place?’ It’s a conversation without fear that says ‘what we need is X, if you can’t do that then it’s not reasonable for us to employ you’. But nine times out of 10 there are ways around that – and that’s why we want to change the conversation to ‘OK, I see a talented person in front of me, how can we make them work for the business?’”
It’s a mindset, says Adams, that also applies to retaining the talent already present in a business, as Purple’s research has found that 83 per cent of disabled people acquire their disability while they’re employed: “In SMEs, issues can arise where an employee acquires a disability and the business wants to keep them because of the expertise and knowledge they’ve got – either in their present role by making adjustments, or in a different role – but perhaps they don’t have the HR or external support to help them. What we’ve seen is that there becomes a stand-off because nobody knows quite what to do – and actually the default position is to pay the person off… what you tend to find is that those people leave the labour market.
“One of the difficulties is that there is so much information out there to support you – but SMEs don’t have time to go and find it, it’s not all in one place, not a joined-up solution,” he adds. “For example, the government programme Access to Work [which funds practical support to help a disabled person remain in employment] has been called the government’s best-kept secret. We’ll be doing a talk and ask, ‘How many of you have heard of Access to Work?’ Very rarely does anyone put their hand up… But we’re here to help businesses find that support, to help them understand there are solutions out there and ultimately this has to be a commercial decision about acquiring and retaining talent and making it work for the business.”
Among the companies Adams has helped to retain talent is Essex-based accountancy firm Scrutton Bland, whose employee Angela Griggs suffered a stroke at the age of 32. Losing the use of her right leg and arm, and suffering from slurred speech, she resolved that a return to work would play a vital part in a return to normality. By reshaping her role, the firm ensured her talent was retained: “I didn’t want to be cosseted and wrapped in cotton wool, even with the best of intentions; just the chance to succeed and fail and all shades inbetween,” she said. “But isn’t that true of everybody?”
The chance to succeed and fail like everyone else is what Adams himself had sought from an early age as he set out to embark on a career in business, but he says he soon encountered barriers: “From a child it was my ambition to be in business – subconsciously, I think it was one way of me being able to prove to people that I’m more than just a disabled person and could be successful, but I was also fascinated by business. So at 18 I sat down with my careers advisor and said, ‘I want to go to university and do a business degree that has a work placement.’ He looked at me and said, ‘The world isn’t ready for you to go on a sandwich placement, you would be better off doing a degree that’s wholly at university.’ So I ended up choosing an economics degree, and we sat down with the phonebook and started working backwards from Z – it was when we got to Coventry University that they said, ‘Yep, we’re happy to take disabled people.’”
Adams would go on to become president of Coventry University’s student union and then, determined to take a job unrelated to disability issues, he applied for an apprenticeship to be a business manager with a company in Manchester. “I did more research for that one interview than I’ve ever done in my life,” he says. “It was to be an all-day interview but, five minutes in, the chair of the panel said, ‘Look, I think you know and we know that this isn’t going to work, so let’s call it quits.’ Adams went back to the university, taking the job of setting up and running a disability research centre. “But I always resolved I would find my way back into business,” he says.
After studying for his MBA, Adams did find his way back into business – taking a non-executive role at an NHS hospital trust in addition to his day job as director of the National Disability Team for higher education: “The chairman of the hospital, which turned over £220m a year, left quite suddenly and they asked me to be acting chair,” he says. “I would work all day and then go up to the hospital at 5pm and sit with the chief executive until 11pm. I remember once I went to a meeting and someone who I hadn’t met before innocently said, ‘What’s he doing here? This isn’t a committee about disability.’”
Two years as part of the senior team at the Disability Rights Commission followed before Adams took the helm at Purple’s predecessor ECDP, an Essex-based organisation providing a range of services, advice and guidance to support and empower disabled people – in 2012 he was awarded the OBE for services to disabled people: “If I look back at my life, I was desperate for opportunity, desperate not to be labelled as ‘disability’, desperate to be Mike Adams and not the guy who’s got a disability called Mike Adams,” he says. “What drives me now is creating those opportunities for other disabled people and, from a business point of view with my chief exec hat on, I want to create value, I want to create growth, I want to create money.”
Central to that wealth creation vision, says Adams, is companies viewing disabled people as a commercial audience: “Nineteen per cent of the adult population in the UK have a disability – as a business that would interest me straight away, but few businesses think about it in that context. For example, when you consider that a growing number of businesses – particularly in retail – sell their products and services online, it’s still unbelievable that in 2016 so many websites are just not accessible in any way.
“There is an opportunity to pitch to the disability market in focus groups, to understand the needs of different groups, that is not being taken up,” he adds. “There is a growing body of research that says disabled people as customers are very loyal – more loyal than other consumers to brands. Similarly, there is some real work going on that shows people connected to disabled people are also much more loyal to organisations that show a commitment to disability issues. That’s where the purple pound figure of £212bn comes in… And we believe that if you start to see disabled people as potential consumers, you will then need to reflect disabled people in your workforce, because it will make business sense.”
Ultimately, Adams says, Purple’s mission is to change the perception around disability from one of “patronage”, in which the government hands out help and the disabled person is the recipient, while businesses feel they are being lectured about their CSR obligations. “People’s motivations for having a conversation about disability will always start in different places,” he says. “What we’re saying is that it doesn’t matter why – and I think that makes people realise that they don’t have to feel guilty about maybe not viewing disability as a kind of ethical and social change issue. It’s OK to see disability as a commercial issue.”
Purple’s target is to have been tangibly involved in getting 20,000 more disabled people into work in the next 10 years – and with the company’s research showing that just five per cent more disabled people in employment would boost UK GDP by £23bn in 2030, the economic impact for the country is clear. On what IoD members can do right now, Adams says: “If you have a job vacancy, you could promote it on Purple’s new online recruitment agency where we will look to match disabled people to the skills required for the role, and then provide ongoing support to both the employer and the disabled person.” With a smile, he adds: “The quicker you come on board, the less lonely I will get – in three years time I want my Christmas card list to be massive, because then we’ll know we’ve achieved something!”
Mike Adams CV
Earlier career President of Coventry University student union, then co-director of its disability research centre; senior management team member at Disability Rights Commission; NED, then acting chair of Mid-Essex Hospitals NHS Trust
2008 CEO of ECDP, an organisation run by and for disabled people
2012 Awarded OBE for services to disabled people
2013 Chairs Access to Work expert advisory panel as it reports to government
2016 ECDP becomes Purple, a national not-for-profit with a mission to change the conversation on disability
Did you know? He is a passionate Brighton and Hove Albion fan, following the team home and away
Website For more about Mike Adams’s plans to bring disabled people and business together, visit wearepurple.org.uk
IoD Mike Adams is a member of IoD Central London