Why do some women seem unstoppable in their careers while others stagnate? Why do certain women attract a much higher degree of success in their personal and professional lives than others? What is it that sets these women apart?

It isn’t luck. It isn’t necessarily their upbringing, family background, or education (although those factors certainly play a role). It isn’t just natural talent or above-average ability (which, granted, certainly doesn’t hurt).

When you observe successful women, you begin to note certain characteristics and habits they share in common. In my 20 years in Corporate America, working for several Fortune 500 companies in a variety of management and professional positions, I had the opportunity to work side by side with many talented, driven, and ultra-successful women. Earlier in my career, they were my mentors – later on, they were often my peers. Without exception, they were women I admired and enjoyed working with and learning from.

And that’s the key: success can be studied! You can learn what works (and what doesn’t!) from observing others. You can look at the lives and careers of people who have what you aspire to – and you can model your own path to success after theirs.

Successful women share many common qualities. Narrowing them down to a few “top secrets” may seem arbitrary. As I pondered the characteristics and habits of the successful women I’ve worked with over the years, I questioned this myself. However, there are five qualities that bubbled to the surface again and again. These are the defining qualities that all of these women shared – without fail. And I was able to observe how these qualities served them exceptionally well. In this article, I’ll share the first secret with you.

Secret #1: Ask for what you want!

Successful women are not afraid to ask for what they want.

Whether it’s asking for a raise, a high-profile project, the opportunity to travel to attend a critical training class, you name it – successful women have internalized the truism that “if you don’t ask, you don’t get.”

It seems so simple, yet so many women struggle with this – and their personal and professional satisfaction suffers as a result. Far too many women spend years and years (and sometimes their entire life or career!) feeling frustrated and disappointed over not having their needs met. They don’t want to rock the boat, or cause trouble, so they don’t ask for what they want or need. If you won’t ask, you won’t risk hearing “no,” but you also won’t get what you want. Sound familiar?

From a career standpoint, one of the most common examples of when this becomes an issue is the discussion of pay and asking for a raise. Many, many women struggle with this. If they are able to get up the nerve to ask for a raise, they’re frequently made to feel that they’re doing something wrong or have no right to ask. The 2010 census statistics show that women still earn 77 percent of what men earn, based on the median earnings of full-time, year-round workers in 2009. The figures are even bleaker for women of color. Although part of this discrepancy is due to discrimination, it’s also partly due to the fact that women are less likely to ask for what they want. Don’t wait to be given what you want or need – ask for it!

Important tip: To improve your odds of success (especially in work situations), prepare your requests in advance. Ensure you are clear about what you want and why you want it. When you present your request, be direct, straightforward, and accompany each request with two or three legitimate reasons why your request should be granted.

Are you achieving the level of success, both personally and professionally, that you aspire to? If you are, that’s fantastic! You may have already found and applied the critical keys to success. If you’re not, you may feel that you are unwittingly sabotaging your life or career – but you’re not sure why or how.

If you feel like there’s something missing for you, and the gap between your reality and how you’d like your life to be just keeps getting greater, consider partnering with a mentor or coach to identify and work on the issues that are standing in the way of your success. And accelerate your progress by asking for what you want!