Hungry for a metaphor to summarize ways leaders incentivize their employees? If you dangle a simple carrot in front of your people, they'll chase it. If you sweeten the pot and dangle a carrot cake, they'll chase that, too. Add some ice cream, top it off with cookie crumbles--it doesn't matter.

If you clearly show your employees  what their goals are and what they can expect to receive in return for reaching those benchmarks, they'll be more likely to find a way to get there.

Reward systems can be great, but in order for an incentive program to work you have to employ a real strategy that aligns with your company's overarching goals. I've seen time and time again employees hitting goal after goal and raising their individual bars, only to see the organization routinely miss its own goals anyway. The good news is, this can so easily be prevented.

Before diving into what works best when rewarding employees (hint: it's more than just cake), leaders have to make sure they're aligning their indicators with what will bring the organization sustained success. 

1. Only set goals based on the company's specific needs

A common example of a marketing goal that gets hit often and yet still misses the bigger picture is lead generation. Throw a number out in front of a good salesperson and they'll hit it.

At the same time, strict quota goals, and the incentives that come with, fail to account for quality. Managing X number of accounts is great, but how are you measuring if those accounts are happy?

In the end, you could have 100 percent of your sales team earning plaques and bonuses for reaching their number while experiencing a crazy high churn rate of unsatisfied customers who weren't properly cared for after they signed on. 

The same thing goes for content generation. Are you cranking out a set number of posts per month because that's how you feel you'll stay relevant? Or are you taking into account the specific needs of your best individual customers and creating personalized content that has meaning?

There's an irony here: your people will work much harder if you cut your quantity goals in half, but raise your quality standards. 

I suspect a fair amount of executives aren't incentivizing for the right things because they themselves are guilty of a bit of oversaturation. Are you a CEO who likes to publish all of your rantings on social channels, regardless of relevance?

That's setting a precedent that your employees' communication with their targets and customers should be constant instead of timely and well-considered.

It's hard to be a thought leader when the world is privy to all of your thoughts--at a certain point, it just becomes more background noise.

2. Avoid one-size-fits all rewards 

Your employees aren't always going to question whether or not a goal is in step with overall organizational process. That's especially true if there are rewards to be had. But even then, the rewards system you establish shouldn't be one-size-fits-all.

People are motivated in different ways, and that surprisingly doesn't always mean money is what gets the needle moving.

In fact, many cash bonus-based systems for hitting quotas end up being convoluted and further contribute to your people chasing numbers instead of cultivating customer relationships.

How do you know what motivates your employees? Ask them. As a leader, it's your job to create a culture that's based on transparency, one in which you see your people as individuals, not job titles.

Time off might speak to some employees more than a salary bump. Opportunities to explore outside interests might inspire another employee to work an extra weekend or two.

Other employees might even shy away from the limelight and reject public displays of rewarding. Find out what moves everyone's happy meter and structure your incentive packages around that.

3. Get everyone on the same page

If you've set your cultural expectations smartly, you'll have no shortage of current team members and potential future applicants who want to see personal and business growth. People want to be a part of something, and strictly going after numbers can ring hollow for your most highly motivated workers.

If that culture is not in place, and if you're failing to incentivize around the right metrics, then your turnover rate will be much higher than you'd like.

Leaders set the tone in deciding what their company is working toward. It's your first priority to clearly communicate what matters to your organization, and priority to discover what matters to each employee. When your carrots are good for both customer relationships and employee satisfaction, then you know you've got something sweet at the end of your string.