Adams previously served as a professor and dean at Duke University's Fuqua School of Business from 1996 to 2001; before that appointment, he had worked for the Mobil Corporation for 31 years, serving as Vice President of Administration from 1988 to 1996. . Adams graduated from Duke magna cum laude in 1962; he was selected for a Rhodes Scholarship that year, and studied nineteenth-century English history at Merton College.
Adams previously served as on the Board of Directors of Alleghany Corporation. In 2001, he was elected chairman of the Board of Directors for the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS). Adams also served as a trustee of Duke University.