Skip to main content

Playing Against Personality Type

A word of advice to the newest graduates of the School of Accountancy: learn to take a good ribbing—because while you may have just earned a coveted degree from a top-ranked accounting program, you’ve also just entered one of the world’s most-stereotyped professions.

A set of old school printing calculators with a person typing on one

True Colors: Marriott School students are a colorful bunch. Just ask professor Greg Anderson, who uses the Color Code personality test to help his information systems students synergize and avoid meltdowns during high-intensity group work. Research suggests that 35 percent of the general population is blue, 25 percent is red, 20 percent is white, and 20 percent is yellow. Knowing your color, or core motive, can improve performance, Anderson says. “There’s not a right or a wrong. You have to 
have all of these colors to get things done.”

Ask Jeffrey Schroeder about his career goals and he’ll tell you a joke. 

Before graduating from the Marriott School in 2009, the aspiring comic performed for three years with the campus comedy club Humor U, serving one of those years as its president. He’s got YouTube videos with wonkish titles such as “Child Labor” and “Important Graphs,” and he recently competed for the title of “Funniest Fed” in Washington, DC. There’s just one shtick he won’t do: “Nobody laughs at accounting jokes,” he says. 

That’s funny because Schroeder, now thirty years old, is a second-generation accountant (his dad is a Marriott School alum), and he’s all too aware of the industry’s stigma. 
“The typical auditor is a man past middle age, spare, wrinkled, intelligent, cold, passive, noncommittal, with eyes like a codfish,” wrote the nineteenth-century essayist Elbert Hubbard, “a petrification with a heart of feldspar and without charm of the friendly germ, minus bowels, passion, or a sense of humor.”

In more recent times a Wall Street Journal headline cracked, “You Think Accountants Are Dull? This Won’t Change Your Mind.” Another joked, “Take Heart, CPAs: Finally a Story That Doesn’t Attack You as Boring.”


All teasing aside, Schroeder seems like a perfect fit for the profession: he’s smart, industrious, and competent. After BYU the Delaware native moved to Fairfax, Virginia, and joined the U.S. Department of Defense, where he scours contracts for “golden hammers, golden toilets,” and other fantastical forms of wasteful spending. By night he and his wife run a small but thriving private tax shop out of their apartment, with glowing customer reviews on Facebook. Hardly your typical codfish.

In Character

For decades researchers have dedicated themselves to studying the causes and effects of accounting stereotypes, usually in the aftermath of major scandals that rain down fire and ash on the industry. 

In the wake of fraud at Enron and WorldCom, a team of Canadian researchers examined a half-century of film to identify the most prominent stereotypes. Of 121 movies with 168 fictional accountants, the team found forty-four dreamers, forty-one plodders, eleven eccentrics, thirty-three heroes, and thirty-nine villains, each categorized based on a complex coding system. While no one knows how much buttered popcorn was consumed during the three-year study, we do know this: a broader portrayal of the accounting profession has emerged, with far more nuanced characters than the stereotypical “pencil-neck geek” (a phrase borrowed from, of all places, professional wrestling).

Here’s another example—this one from 1992. At the time, a series of public-reporting failures had turned the accounting industry on its head, spawning reform from the classroom to the boardroom. A young Marriott School professor named Monte Swain wondered if accountants’ personalities had a role to play in the current state of affairs.

“I was interested in knowing what type of students I had sitting out there in front of me,” he recalls more than twenty years later, now as the Marriott School’s Deloitte Professor. “I wondered if I was teaching the wrong people or if I had the right people.”

Swain spent the next fifteen years observing the personality patterns of more than one thousand accounting students. He also documented the self-selection process that occurred as students advanced from introductory accounting classes into the major and from the accounting profession into a long-term career. The result was a series of “migratory patterns,” he says, driven by students’ attitudes, intentions, and performance.

Swain’s findings, published in the journal Issues in Accounting Education, are revealing, and they’re helping Marriott School grads negate stereotypes—the stuff of stand-up and sitcoms—with reputation, a real and consequential measure of public influence. That’s where personality comes in, Swain says. But to dig deeper, it helps to first delve into the illuminating world of personality testing. 

Code Words

Are you an extrovert or an introvert? A red or a white? A lion or an otter?

Personality testing is a $400-million-a-year industry with a mind-boggling number of ways to ask the question, “What are you?” Nearly all of them apply the seminal theories of Carl Jung, a nineteenth-century Swiss psychiatrist who broke down everyday understanding of the world into four psychological functions: sensation, intuition, feeling, and thinking. Everyone has a dominant function, Jung said, just as everyone has a dominant hand. We gravitate toward careers that suit our prevailing traits. 

While there are many psychometric tools based on Jungian psychology (see the “Strictly Personal” sidebar), the most widely recognized is the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI). 
Created during World War II, the MBTI grew out of historic shifts in the labor market. As millions of American men left factories for the front lines, industrious women rolled up their sleeves to fill the gaps. To match the new workers’ skills to employers’ needs, researchers Katharine Cook Briggs and her daughter Isabel Briggs Myers designed and administered a questionnaire based on Jung’s psychological types.

Today’s MBTI evaluates a person’s preferences between extroversion and introversion, sensing or intuition, thinking or feeling, and judging or perceiving. The result is a four-letter code, an abbreviation of each of the four dichotomous preferences. 

For many, these individualized results—one of sixteen personality types—can be eerily accurate or frustratingly faulty. However, there’s no right or wrong set of character combinations. At the least, data gleaned from truthful responses to the survey can be insightful.

Take, for example, ENTJs—those who are extroverted, intuitive, thinking, and judging. As natural leaders, they earn more than other types, according to Some experts have identified Steve Jobs as an ENTJ—visionary, decisive, and controlling. At the other end of the spectrum, ISFPs are introverted, sensing, feeling, and perceiving. They often excel in music or art. Interestingly, Jobs’s top product designer, Jonathan Ive, is an ISFP, according to Together, the dynamic Jobs and Ive duo ushered in Apple’s most successful spate of product launches to date. 

So where do accounting graduates fit in? According to Swain’s subject pool of 1,208 students, the most common of the sixteen personality types are ISTJ (practical, sensible, decisive, logical, and detached) and ESTJ (logical, decisive, objectively critical, practical, and systematic). Both types share sensing, thinking, and judging attributes, but there’s no significant difference in the number of extroverted and introverted students. “We’re seeing the exact same ratio in the classroom as across the broad population,” Swain says, “so the ‘introverted accountant’ myth gets exploded.”

Old school calculator

Wanted: Intuition

In the 2006 comedy Stranger Than Fiction, IRS auditor Harold Crick, played by Will Ferrell, lives a mechanical existence. He counts his toothbrush strokes, follows a strict daily regimen, and never misses work. But when he begins to hear a curious narration of his life—down to the brushstroke—he discovers that he is the subject of an unfinished novel in which he must soon die. Spurning fate and the narrator’s edicts, he takes a vacation, buys a Fender Stratocaster, and wins over a girl.

It might be a feeble comparison, but Harold Crick, “a man of infinite numbers, endless calculations, and remarkably few words,” exemplifies an existential dilemma that affects us all. Is there an unalterable gap between who we are and who we can become? Can we change our personalities and our fates?

Of course we can, but it takes work. Remember what Carl Jung said about dominant functions: they’re like our dominant hand. And anyone who has ever broken an arm knows it’s possible to strengthen the other hand with practice. Swain compares this phenomenon to Michael Jordan’s extreme versatility on the basketball court. He wasn’t always ambidextrous, Swain explains, but because he worked at it, Jordan could dribble or shoot with either hand; he was famous for it.

Accountants can work on their weaker functions too, Swain says. One to start with is intuition, he adds, which is needed to audit valuations of companies like Google or Snapchat, whose price tags are nuanced and complex. Even more profoundly, it’s needed inside businesses to leverage big data. “Accountants are the arbiters of data, but if they don’t understand how to creatively and intuitively work with that data, then we’ve failed to access the value of that data, and there are missed opportunities as a result,” he says.

Sometimes a knowledge of our personality type might feel like the narrator’s voice in Stranger Than Fiction, telling us what we can and cannot do, but the reality is that we can strengthen our weakest traits and develop complementary skills. 

“What are your strengths? What do you want to develop into your next strength?” Swain asks. “If we’re aware, we can—and should—stretch ourselves, which is what a professionally mature person does. They don’t let themselves get pigeonholed.” 

Breaking the Mold

With résumés to prove it, these Marriott School alums are auditing powerhouses working for some of the biggest names in the business. While their professional prowess is unquestionable, their unique talents are what really turn the accounting stigma on its head.

Jason Black (MAcc ’12)
Auditor, KPMG, Salt Lake City
Known on YouTube as the Backwards Piano Man, Black landed his first interview with KPMG the same week he appeared on the Ellen DeGeneres Show. Since graduating, he has occasionally performed for clients while putting his auditing skills to work and expanding his professional network. “People are stunned when they learn I play the piano. It makes me chuckle,” he says.
Joni Lusty (MAcc ’99)
Campus recruiter and auditor, EY, Salt Lake City
“Did I fit in with other accounting students? I think not,” says Lusty, who has always been good at juggling interests. Balancing a demanding folk dancing schedule with a heavy course load as a student, the former BYU clogger has performed in more than fifty countries. She has used her accounting skills to help clients in the arts, such as the Utah Symphony and Opera and many community boards. 
Jeffrey Schroeder (MAcc ’09)
Auditor, Defense Contract Audit Agency, Fairfax, Virginia
A comedian in college, Schroeder says he struggled to fit in among his accounting peers at first. That changed when a favorite professor fired up one of Schroeder’s YouTube clips in class. “I was shocked,” he remembers. But then a funny thing happened: his classmates started to laugh. “It felt good to be recognized for something unique I had worked hard to do,” he says. “We bonded after that.”

Strictly personal

From Hippocrates to the sorting hat at Hogwarts, personality assessments permeate our history and culture. Here are three of the most popular, with their creators and categories.

Myers-Briggs Type IndicatorThe Color CodeThe DISC Profile
Created by Katharine Cook Briggs and Isabel Briggs MyersCreated by Taylor HartmanCreated by Walter Vernon Clarke
Sixteen types illustrate personality preferences in four areas.Four colors correspond to primary motivesFour types establish a relationship between self and the environment.
Attitude: extroversion vs. introversion 

Red: power 

(vision, leadership, proactivity)

Dominance: task-oriented (like a lion)
Information: sensing vs. intuition

Blue: intimacy 

(quality, loyalty, service)

Inducement: social, fun (like an otter)
Decisions: thinking vs. feeling

White: peace 

(clarity, tolerance, kindness)

Submission: loyal, understanding (like a golden retriever)
Lifestyle: judging vs. perceiving

Yellow: fun 

(enthusiasm, charisma, spontaneity)

Compliance: analytical, industrious (like a beaver)


Article written by Bremen Leak

About the Author
Bremen Leak studied journalism at BYU. An INTJ, he now lives and works in New York City.

Related Stories


How Will You Carry His Name?

March 26, 2024 08:30 AM
Drawing upon her experiences in the professional and academic worlds, associate professor Abigail Allen shares how followers of Christ can represent His Church.
overrideBackgroundColorOrImage= overrideTextColor= overrideTextAlignment= overrideCardHideSection=false overrideCardHideByline=false overrideCardHideDescription=false overridebuttonBgColor= overrideButtonText= overrideTextAlignment=

Escaping the Hustle Culture

November 28, 2023 01:33 PM
Practical Tips for Finding a Healthier Work-Life Balance
overrideBackgroundColorOrImage= overrideTextColor= overrideTextAlignment= overrideCardHideSection=false overrideCardHideByline=false overrideCardHideDescription=false overridebuttonBgColor= overrideButtonText= overrideTextAlignment=

Time for a Prep Talk

November 28, 2023 01:31 PM
Huddle up: the third and final piece in Marriott Alumni Magazine's preparedness series looks at community preparedness.
overrideBackgroundColorOrImage= overrideTextColor= overrideTextAlignment= overrideCardHideSection=false overrideCardHideByline=false overrideCardHideDescription=false overridebuttonBgColor= overrideButtonText= overrideTextAlignment=
overrideBackgroundColorOrImage= overrideTextColor= overrideTextAlignment= overrideCardHideSection=false overrideCardHideByline=false overrideCardHideDescription=false overridebuttonBgColor= overrideButtonText=