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Business titans reveal secrets of success

If there's one characteristic shared by the men and women on CNBC's list of the 25 most transformative icons, rebels and leaders of the past 25 years, it's that they never gave up.

Determination seems to be the defining characteristic of those on CNBC's list of the 25 people that had the most profound impact on business and finance since 1989, the year the business news network went live.

Read MoreThe List: CNBC First 25

But in interviews with each of the honorees, it seems the secret to their success is as different and varied as the backgrounds they come from and industries they work in.

"Every one of these people broke out early. They knew what they wanted and they didn't take no for an answer," said Eric Schmidt, executive chairman at Google, who ranked No. 4 on the list, along with Google executive team members Sergey Brin and Larry Page.

"They had this unusual sense of self-confidence and vision and they were willing to do whatever it took to achieve their business objective."

Read MoreGoogle 'well-positioned' in mobile war: Schmidt

Billionaire activist investor Carl Icahn echoed that successful people seem to find themselves consumed by whatever they're working on. That obsession pays dividends.

"Just getting it right, you know, getting it done. Almost being a perfectionist," said Icahn, ranked No. 17 on the list. "Money is the scorecard. I don't need the money anymore ... but I'm obsessed in getting something right."

Martha Stewart credits her success not only to hard work, persistence and attention to detail, but a keen understanding of branding.

"I had a friend called Charlotte Beers, who was a brander and she kept saying, 'Martha, you're a brand. You're a brand,'" Stewart said. "And then one day I woke up and said, 'Ah, I'm a brand.'"

Stewart used her namesake not only to create a home-building media empire, but become the first female self-made billionaire in the United States, at least on paper. The founder of Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia ranks No. 24 on CNBC's list.

For Meg Whitman, chief executive of Hewlett-Packard and former CEO of eBay and No. 18 on the list, achieving success takes a lot of energy.

Read MoreHP's Meg Whitman: My big blunder at eBay

"Business is a full-contact sport and it's hard," Whitman said. "It has always been for me about a team sport and who you have on your team and who your team members are, even if you're not the boss and so it's the right person in the right job in the right time with the right attitude."

—By CNBC's Drew Sandholm.