Changing the Channel

Former HR leader Fred Knowles left behind a career that included stops at Under Armour and Capital One and ended up making a sitcom starring Ed Asner.

By Andrew R. McIlvaine

A dentist, a podiatrist and a former HR executive walk into a coffee shop and . . . does this sound like the opening line of an old-school joke? Funnily enough, the outcome of regular meetings between these three actual people is a sitcom, starring veteran actor and multiple-Emmy award winner Ed Asner, about an old-school gym owner in Miami Beach struggling to adapt to a new era.

Prior to his new role as the co-creator of the sitcom, titled Bennie's, Fred Knowles spent 25 years in HR, including senior roles at Capital One and athletic-apparel maker Under Armour, before hanging up his hat and trying something new.

"I wanted to do something that would have me excited to get up in the morning," he says.

After he left Under Armour, Knowles cast about a bit before starting a new company called Executive Transition Coaching (eTc), which provides coaching services to executives who are looking to find new careers that best match up to where their true interests lie. He takes clients through a series of exercises designed to help them figure out what it is they truly want to do and learn how to use their networks to help them reach their goal.

In his spare time, Knowles hung out at a Starbucks near his suburban Maryland home, which is where he met the dentist (Neil Cohen) and the podiatrist (Steve Kominsky). The three began sharing a table each morning, discussing various things, and learned that Cohen had an idea for a sitcom. After a series of rewrites, they hired a local playwright to refine the script and, through his network of contacts, Knowles got in touch with the casting director of Netflix's House of Cards, which is shot in Maryland. He showed her the script and from there it ended up in the hands of Asner, who told his agent he was interested in starring.

After cobbling together financing from family and friends (Asner agreed to work for significantly less than his usual fee), the three hired additional cast members and a crew and shot a pilot episode of the sitcom at a vacant dollar store in Columbia, Md., that was decorated to look like a faded, 70's-era gym.

The sitcom has yet to be purchased by a television network or a streaming service such as Netflix, Hulu or Amazon and it faces long odds, Knowles admits. However, the experience has proved extremely rewarding, he says, and has inspired him to begin writing a book titled What's Your Sitcom? The book is based on Knowles' own experiences of leaving a good job behind without necessarily having a clear idea of what he was going to do next. We spoke with Knowles about the sitcom and his experiences going out on his own. book manuscript opens with the Henry David Thoreau quote, "The mass of men live lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them." Why did you include that quote? Does it describe your mindset at the time you left your job?

I think it applies to me. People who looked at me then would probably say I'd been successful, and I had all the normal trappings of success. But, although I wasn't unhappy at my job, it wasn't something I could get up each day and be excited about and, at the end of each day, feel like I'd left it all on the field, whatever that means. I could have continued to live that life and no one would have questioned it, but I had enough money at the time, and I thought, what else could I do that could really make me feel good? You've got to define what happiness and success mean to you, and it has nothing to do with what other people think of you.

Can you explain the title of your book, Find Your Sitcom?

It's a euphemism for that thing in your life that's going to get you up in the morning excited for the day, that elevates your game, that makes people around you better. [The book will include] tests and quizzes designed to help readers discover what their passion is. Passion is something that you know when you see it. The book is about, what's that thing in your life? For me, it was this thing called a sitcom and I went and did it, and what's it for you, and how are you going to find it?

How did you determine that making a sitcom was your passion?

When I think of things that get me stoked, one of my passions is learning something new. I knew nothing about how the film industry works or how TV works or even how to write a sitcom. We had no idea what we were doing, but for me, this idea of tackling something where you're starting at a base knowledge of zero was really exciting. A lot of people hate that, but to me there's nothing better than uncovering a new issue or problem each day that you have to solve.

Did your experience as an HR leader come into play?

It was fascinating to look at the process of making a sitcom through the eyes of a corporate HR exec. For me, even though it was a brand-new learning opportunity, there was so much I could bring via the basic ideas that HR uses to get great talent and build a great culture, both of which are necessary for creating a sitcom. For example, we had a "no asshole" policy because I've seen it work in organizations that have one. I found a lot of places where I could apply what l learned from my years an HR professional. The profession is fungible, you can use the expertise you gain from it in a lot of different ways. I happened to use it to produce a sitcom.

You write that, after you left your old job, you started interviewing friends of yours who'd recently transitioned out of corporate life and that they all had similar stories. What were those stories, and how did they lead you to start your coaching business?

The stories differed based on what company they were leaving, but the thought process was extremely similar in that they'd typically been let go in their fifties from a senior-level position after having been in corporate life for 30 or so years. They typically had one of two different reactions to that event: They either jumped into something else right away because they couldn't stand not doing anything, which often turned out to be the wrong move, or the other reaction was a bit of a deer-in-the-headlights mindset -- they had no idea what their next step was going to be. They'd held senior roles in their organizations, they'd felt like big men -- or women -- on campus, and it's tough to go from that to being on your own. They needed to think through what their next steps were going to be. So I took those interviews and built something a bit more systematized to help walk people through this process and help them figure out what it is they truly want to do and how they're going to get there.

Knowing what you know now, can you think of some advice you'd offer to current HR leaders who are either thinking of transitioning to an entirely new career themselves or would like to offer constructive advice to other employees in their organization who are in that spot?

I think the most important step is for people to actually write up their "transition story" in order to clarify for themselves whether they really want to leave behind what they're doing right now, and uncover what's stoking this passion to do that. Sitting down and writing this story -- why you want to do this, how you envision it playing out, what it might look like -- can really clarify for you whether this is something you seriously want to do. It either helps people realize they need to start moving out of the hole they're in now or to recommit to, and double down on, their present job because they realize they didn't really want to transition to something else after all.

Why did you guys decide to set your sitcom in a gym?

First, no one's ever set a sitcom in a gym before, and second, with a gym you have almost every type of person imaginable coming in, an infinite number of characters you could introduce. With this particular gym, Bennie, the owner, started it in the '70s and it really reeks of that era even though it's now 2016. You've got people who joined the gym when it first opened mixing with young people who are encountering it now, so it's a really interesting cultural dynamic.

What has it been like working with Ed Asner?  Do you think he'd make a good HR leader?

When we wrote the script, we had several actors in mind for the role of Bennie: Alan Arkin, Elliott Gould and Ed Asner. We were very lucky to get Ed; he really liked the script. Would he be a good HR leader? Ed is a very deep thinker in many areas, but he absolutely does not have the temperament to hold that job. I think he'd be a good labor-relations guy, and maybe a good HR strategy guy, but could he deal with all the EEOC regulations and so on? Probably not. But you never know. I'll have to think about that a little more.  

If the sitcom is picked up, what might that mean for you -- will you continue with your current ventures? What if it becomes a Friends-sized hit?

With the sitcom, the most likely outcome is that nothing will happen -- the odds are against it. If it does get picked up, one potential outcome is that they'll buy us out, produce it themselves and, hopefully, we'll just sit around collecting checks. The other outcome, which is the one we would actually prefer, is if we can get someone to fund us to continue doing the production here in Maryland. Our goal is to bring more film production to this state, so that would be great, although it would also be a lot of work for us. But eTc is something I'm going to want to continue doing regardless of what happens, because I'm passionate about it.

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Jul 14, 2016
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